BALTIMORE - Josh Willingham readily admits there were times during his 11 major league seasons that he wondered whether he’d ever taste the promised land of baseball’s postseason.
He was a part of the Nationals squad that went 59-103 in 2009, setting the stage for the team to take outfielder Bryce Harper with the first selection in the following year’s First-Year Player Draft. Five times during his career, he’s been on teams that lost 91 or more games. It would have been six had the Minnesota Twins - who signed Willingham to a three-year, $21 million free agent deal before the 2012 campaign - not traded him to the Kansas City Royals on Aug. 12.
“I think it kind of wears on you being on losing teams a lot,” Willingham said. “But definitely, this is a lot more fun. Sure, I thought about it. That’s the goal when you sign up this: Everybody wants to make it to the postseason. I always wondered if I would, so now that it’s come true, it’s really nice.”
Seated beside teammate Raul Ibanez at a small table covered in a black tablecloth at Camden Yards during media day before the start of the best-of-seven American League Championship Series, Willingham isn’t one of the more popular Royals being besieged by reporters toting notebooks, tape recorders and microphones.
But he may be one of the most appreciative.
“When I got traded over here, I knew (postseason) was a possibility,” he said. “The mix of the team - young guys, old guys, how everybody plays - with this level of a team, I knew it was a good possibility. We played pretty well down the stretch and carried it into the postseason.”
The Royals finished as the top AL wild card, hosted the must-win play-in game and beat the Oakland A’s to reach the American League Division Series, rallying from four runs down in the eighth and winning in the 12th when Salvador Perez’s single capped a two-run comeback. In the best-of-five ALDS, they swept the Los Angeles Angels, who finished with the best record in the major leagues.
“I think the wild card game, being our and my first playoff game, it was pretty crazy how that game was,” he said. “Being down four, just the overall intensity of the game, the crowds - everything’s been pretty much up to what I expected. I’m just trying to take it all in, savor it and really enjoy it as much as possible. The games are pretty stressful games, but I’m trying to stay in the moment and enjoy it.”
Willingham is the kind of gritty veteran bat that teams headed to the postseason love to use to fill out their bench. That’s been his role so far - pinch-hitting once each in the wild card game and the ALDS and singling in his first career playoff at-bat. Though he tries not to pay too much attention to trade deadline chatter, Willingham was aware that the Nationals were mentioned as a possible destination.
“I wanted to go ... to a winning team that has a chance for the postseason, and obviously, the Nats had that,” he said. “That was the goal. I didn’t know where I wanted to go, It’s not really your choice. You don’t know what the group of guys are, you don’t know anything about the team, you just know you wanted to go to a winner. ... I think in the back of my mind, I wanted this to happen so I could possibly get to the postseason.”
He got that in the deal that sent him to Kansas City, where he batted .233 with two homers and six RBIs in 24 games of spot duty. It saved him from another 90-loss season with the Twins, where he hit 62 homers and drove in 192 runs in just under three seasons.
Willingham keeps tabs on the Nationals and said he was surprised to see them ousted in the Division Series for the second time in three seasons.
“I am, but any time you get in a short series like that, anything can happen,” Willingham said. “I’m sure people were surprised that the Angels went down to us in three games. I mean, best record in baseball? I think a lot of it has to do with momentum, who’s playing the best, who’s pitching. Who’s pitching the best is what it really comes down to. That’s why we won that series - we pitched better.”
The 35-year-old Willingham likes playing on a team where he feels engaged. Though he’s leading an AL team, Royals skipper Ned Yost employed a decidedly National League style, working hard to make sure all of his players get a taste of the action. That makes a guy like Willingham, who possesses what scouts like to call “a professional bat,” eager to stay ready for the call.
He doesn’t skip a beat when asked about the best part of the past two months.
“Winning,” he says, a smile crossing his face. “Once we got in, that was a big weight off our shoulders. I think, really, the wild card game, the way the momentum shifted up and down in that game (before) eventually we won, I think we took that momentum into the Division Series and played that series with kind of a - not a nothing-to-lose attitude, but a no-fear attitude. I think we played loose, no fear. Hopefully we carry that on into this series.”