Reporting from Tempe, Ariz. — Jerome Williams was on the fence about playing winter ball last year until he walked five batters in 4 1/3 innings Sept. 13 at Oakland, uncharacteristic for a control pitcher who had 10 walks in the other 39 2/3 innings he threw for the Angels last season.
“My mind was somewhere else that game,” said Williams, the favorite this spring to win the fifth spot in what should be one of baseball’s best rotations. “I wanted to go somewhere to work on my focus, on staying within myself the whole game.”
Williams, a first-round pick whose career has been pocked by weight problems and shoulder injuries, has played for four big league organizations, in Taiwan, Mexico and Puerto Rico, and in two independent leagues.
But he had never experienced a November in Venezuela, where the 30-year-old right-hander made six starts for the Magallanes Navegantes, who are based in Valencia, the country’s third-largest city.
“The stadium is like a triple-A park — it holds about 25,000 fans — but it sounds like 60,000 because there’s so much noise, so much commotion,” Williams said. “There’s music, drums, horns. It’s so loud that sometimes the catcher would come to the mound and I couldn’t hear him.”
Venezuelan fans aren’t merely loud; they can be very demanding.
“They expect you to come in firing, playing your major league game right away, and at times they can be impatient,” Angels infielder Maicer Izturis, a Venezuelan native, said through an interpreter. “But at the same time, it strengthens you mentally and gets you as sharp as possible to play the game right.”
Izturis played winter ball regularly in Venezuela until 2010 and said it took awhile to tune out the distractions.
“It’s an environment we enjoy because it’s what our culture is like — it’s raucous, noisy, it makes baseball a lot of fun,” Izturis said. “You learn to block everything out that’s not going to allow you to perform at your peak.”
Williams did, going 5-0 with a 1.00 earned-run average, striking out 25 and walking 12 in 36 innings and setting a solid foundation for what he hopes will be his first full year in the big leagues since 2004.
“I figured if I could pitch in front of those crowds, where it’s jam-packed every day, music everywhere, and be focused, I’ll be fine,” Williams said. “It was crazy, real intense. If you can play there, I think you can play anywhere in the world.”
Venezuela also has been ravaged by kidnappings and street crime, and Washington Nationals catcher Wilson Ramos was kidnapped at gunpoint from his family’s home in Valencia on Nov. 9.
Ramos was rescued two days later by police commandoes amid a flurry of gunfire, and the incident left Williams shaken.
“It happened two blocks from where I was staying,” Williams said. “I didn’t go to the field for two days. I pretty much stayed in my hotel room, went downstairs for lunch and dinner and went right back upstairs.”
Williams returned home in late November, but by January the Hawaii native was in Arizona, spending the month before camp “working out five days a week, throwing, doing the things I was supposed to do when I was 21.”
Williams, a top pick of the San Francisco Giants in 1999, admittedly squandered his first opportunity in the game. He was 23-29 with a 4.25 ERA in 76 big league games from 2003 to 2007 but succumbed to poor work and eating habits.
After he was traded to the Chicago Cubs in 2005, Williams ballooned from 200 pounds to 270. He weighed 265 when he was released by the Nationals in 2007 and spent the next four years in four minor league towns, two independent leagues and Taiwan.
But by last season, his fastball, which dipped to 84 mph because of a sore shoulder in 2007, was back around 92 mph.
After a 7-1 record and 2.91 ERA with the independent Lancaster (Pa.) Barnstormers, the 6-foot-3, 240 pound Williams signed a minor league contract with the Angels last June 16.
Williams’ 7-2 record and 3.91 ERA in 11 games at triple-A Salt Lake earned him an Aug. 17 promotion to the Angels, and he didn’t waste this opportunity. He was 4-0 with a 3.68 ERA in 10 games — six starts — including an eight-inning, one-hit, one-run gem against Seattle on Sept. 7.
Williams worked quickly and threw strikes, and his performance earned him a guaranteed $820,000 major league contract and a spring-training locker in a row that includes Jered Weaver, Dan Haren, C.J. Wilson and Ervin Santana.
“It’s a blessing,” Williams said. “I’m thankful to be here.”
Williams hadn’t been in big league camp since 2009, with Oakland. Now, if he beats out youngster Garrett Richards for the fifth spot, he’ll open 2012 as part of a superb rotation on a team with World Series aspirations.
“I just wanted a shot to show people I’ve changed,” Williams said. “I couldn’t imagine being on such a good team.”
Williams showed ability last season; now he has to show durability, sustaining his 2011 performance over a whole major league season. A good sign: Williams combined for 2061/3 innings last season in Lancaster, Salt Lake, Anaheim and Venezuela, the most he has thrown in a season.
“Yeah, there’s a little bit of an unknown, but he threw the ball better last year than he ever has,” Manager Mike Scioscia said. “He was crisp, and he maintained his stuff for a long time. We feel he’s for real, but the game is going to tell you.”
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