Big Mac goes off for San Jose

The San Jose Giants return two familiar faces to the heart of their batting order this season.

Second baseman Ryan Cavan is back in San Jose after his 90-RBI season with the team two years ago. And former top prospect Angel Villalona returns for his first professional season since 2009, when he was part of the famed San Jose team that produced Buster Posey, Brandon Crawford, and Madison Bumgarner.

San Jose manager Andy Skeels is throwing his most inexperienced position player into the fire though. Sandwiched between Villalona and Cavan in the heart of Thursday’s opening-day batting order was big Mac Williamson. And the 22-year-old slugger did not disappoint.

Beginning his first full year of pro baseball, San Jose’s newest cleanup hitter powered the Giants to an 8-7 win over Visalia. Williamson went 3 for 5 with a double, a home run, two RBIs, and three runs scored. That’s quite a debut, considering he entered the season with just 131 professional at bats to his credit.

“[Being in the opening-day lineup] was very exciting,” Williamson said. “Obviously last year I had a very short stint in the short-season up in [Salem-Keizer]. I didn’t play very much, so to be able to jump a level – skip (Low-A) Augusta and come all the way up to High-A – then to actually be in the middle of the lineup … it’s pretty special.”

Williamson certainly fits the bill of a cleanup hitter. A 6-foot-4 corner outfielder, he was the first position player to be drafted by the Giants last year as a third-round selection out of Wake Forest. In fact, he was the only position player the Giants drafted in the early rounds, as the organization tabbed seven pitchers in the first eight rounds.

Between two short-season levels, Williamson belted nine home runs in 2012 pro debut. This after leading Wake Forest in home runs for two consecutive years, including 17 bombs last seasons to pace the Atlantic Coast Conference. He totaled 36 home runs in three seasons for the Demon Deacons.

Yet his career as a prolific college slugger began with disappointment. Originally recruited as a two-way player, Williamson never even got to take the mound as a collegiate pitcher. As a local prep star at Wake Forest-Rolesville, he was once ranked by Baseball America as the top pitching prospect in North Carolina.

A catcher for most of his life, Williamson only began pitching his junior season. Prior to that, he had been discouraged from ever doing so by his grandfather Willard Renn, because Renn was a firm believer that pitching wasn’t healthy for young players.      

So, following his breakout junior season on the mound, while pitching for a summer showcase league, Williamson started experiencing discomfort in his shoulder. An initial MRI revealed no injuries, so he soldiered through his senior high-school season, moving from behind the plate to the outfield to rest his arm on his non-pitching days.

But by the time the 2008 MLB draft rolled around, as his shoulder discomfort continued to progress, the one-time top prep arm in North Carolina went undrafted. Then in the fall of his freshman year, an MRI revealed a torn labrum in his throwing shoulder. He took a medical redshirt in 2009, and hasn’t pitched or caught ever since.

“I think what it came down to was a lack of knowledge of how to properly take care of my arm, and how to properly take care of my body,” Williamson said.

Fitness had already become serious business to Williamson even before the injury. In high school, he began to improve on an admittedly abysmal 60-yard-dash time. As a high-school freshman, Williamson said he ran it in 8.3 seconds: “Which is like walking backwards,” he said.

Williamson said he improved that time to 6.4 seconds prior to his redshirt junior season at Wake Forest in which he was drafted by San Francisco. This after he effectively had to try out for an outfield spot two years prior. But after a murky 2008 season spent rehabbing following labrum surgery, Williamson found new life as a power-hitting corner outfielder.

“I wasn’t asking for any promises (to play the outfield as a redshirt sophomore), just for a chance to prove myself,” Williamson said. “And the rest is history. They gave me a chance to earn the spot, and I ended up starting every game from then on out. And here I am.”

Now Williamson is looking to continue proving himself. That’s not something a player can do in one game. But a 3-for-5 debut is a good start.

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