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Williams breaking out by letting go

Outfielder had three hits in his first Grapefruit League start
MLB.com

CLEARWATER, Fla. -- Against the Blue Jays on Saturday, Nick Williams got his first outfield start of the Grapefruit League season. He responded with three hits, including a double, a run scored and an RBI.

It was a useful reminder of why the 23-year-old got so much attention last spring. After being acquired from the Rangers as part of the deal that sent ace Cole Hamels to Texas, Williams -- still the Phillies fourth-ranked prospect according to MLBPipeline.com -- hit .320 with four homers and 10 RBI in 22 games at Double-A Reading. There was all sorts of speculation about him making his Major League debut last season.

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CLEARWATER, Fla. -- Against the Blue Jays on Saturday, Nick Williams got his first outfield start of the Grapefruit League season. He responded with three hits, including a double, a run scored and an RBI.

It was a useful reminder of why the 23-year-old got so much attention last spring. After being acquired from the Rangers as part of the deal that sent ace Cole Hamels to Texas, Williams -- still the Phillies fourth-ranked prospect according to MLBPipeline.com -- hit .320 with four homers and 10 RBI in 22 games at Double-A Reading. There was all sorts of speculation about him making his Major League debut last season.

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Video: Todd Zolecki on Nick Williams

It didn't happen. And that's not the whole story on why he's had a far lower profile in camp this time around. While spending the entire season at Triple-A Lehigh Valley, he was twice benched for not hustling. That could be written off to youth and inexperience. However, he also tailed off badly in the final month of the season, batting .161 in his last 31 games with an eye-popping 45 strikeouts in 124 at bats. He was hitting .290 through July 29 but ended up at .258.

"I tried to be Barry Bonds or something," Williams said before Sunday's game against the Red Sox at Spectrum Field. "Trying to control things I couldn't control. And it caused me to try to do way too much. It just turned me off my game."

"It was dumb. It was an immaturity thing. I was just trying so hard to make it to the bigs."

Video: Williams reflects on outstanding catch against O's

This time around, the attention has shifted elsewhere. Odubel Herrera signed a 5-year, $30.5 million contract and veterans Howie Kendrick and Michael Saunders were acquired to play the corner outfield spots. Williams isn't out of sight, but he's seemed largely out of mind.

And that's all right. He's realized that sometimes you just have to take a deep breath and relax and let the game come to you.

"I was trying to do everything," he said. "Defensively I stayed consistent. Offensively I was trying to hit the ball way too hard. I was just trying way too hard. I mean, I play hard. And I practice hard. But instead of just playing and having fun, I felt like every at-bat, every pitch, that I had to do something right here.

"It was a learning curve. Just a big learning year as far as my whole career [is concerned]."

He also tied for second in the International League in runs (78), tied for third in doubles (33) and tied for fourth in triples (6) in his first exposure to Triple-A.

Against the Blue Jays, Williams got his hits against two of the better starters in the American League, Marco Estrada and Aaron Sanchez. "When that chance happens, make a little noise, right?" he said with a smile. "Not try too hard, but just compete. That's what I wanted to do."

Lesson learned.

Paul Hagen is a reporter for MLB.com.

Philadelphia Phillies, Nick Williams