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Breaking Out: Colin Willis emerges as a leader in the RailCats lineup

06/13/2018 10:46 AM -

Colin Willis already had one major award to his name when he was named the American Association Rookie of the Year for the 2017 season. On Monday, he garnered another AA honor in being named the league’s Pointstreak Player of the Week for the first time.

However, when asked about it, he quickly made sure to mention the last RailCat to take home the honor: former teammate Frank Martinez.

Martinez, who was twice named AA Player of the Week in 2016, served as the RailCats cleanup hitter for the previous two seasons, while also serving as a mentor for Willis as he broke into the American Association.

“He’s always been there to help me out and I’ve learned a lot from him,” Willis said. “To be put in the same category as him is a great honor.”

For Willis, it perhaps serves as a final sign of a changing in the guard in the middle of the RailCats order.

After starring at Purdue-North Central in nearby Westville, Willis burst onto the scene in his first full season of pro baseball in 2017. He hit .318 with eight home runs and 49 RBIs, but it was Frank Martinez who led the RailCats with 66 RBIs while spending most of the season batting in the cleanup spot behind Willis.

With Martinez moving on to the Atlantic League, however, it became Willis’ turn to lead the RailCats offense, and with the league’s pitchers taking notice, he struggled at first.

“They know who I am now,” says Willis, referring to AA hurlers. “So it’s all about how fast I can adapt.”

Initially, the struggles were apparent. After reaching base three times in the season opener, Willis fell into a 1-for-22 slump that coincided with a 2-5 start by the RailCats. But, beginning with a win in St. Paul on May 25th, Willis got hot, batting .367 over his next 14 games as the RailCats rattled off a streak of 12 wins in 14 games.

Willis credits some of that hot stretch by Gary to a tight bond formed by him and his teammates.

“The professionalism that we have and the camaraderie that we have…it’s the best I’ve ever felt before,” Willis said. “I’m confident that we can go out and compete every day.”

 With the RailCats riding high throughout the end of May into June, it was Willis doing the heavy lifting as he adjusted to being the focal point of the RailCats offense. The culmination of that stretch came in the series finale on Sunday at Fargo-Moorhead, when Willis tallied his first career two-homer game that spurred the RailCats to take three of four against the RedHawks, including a three-run blow in the eighth that gave Gary the lead for good.

That performance capped off the run that earned him Pointstreak Player of the Week honors for the week of June 4-10, a week that saw Willis go 11-for-25 with the two home runs, three doubles, five runs, and six RBIs. After the 2-for-24 start, the hot stretch boosted Willis’ overall batting average north of .270.

As the season goes on and pitchers continue to pitch Willis closely, his approach remains the same.

“If you go at it that cautious, [the pitcher’s] still going to make mistakes,” Willis said. “Be patient, stay ready, and hoping they make a mistake and being ready to capitalize on that.”

The results that he has garnered through that approach have surprised even Willis himself, while also serving as gratification for him after being overlooked for much of his career.

“It’s definitely rewarding, you know, coaches who have taken a pass on me…congratulating me,” Willis said.

Of course, RailCats manager Greg Tagert did not pass on the local product, and despite originally hailing from Wisconsin, Willis has made himself home in Gary, settling down in Miller Beach.

“I’ve been here for about 6 years, going to school here, but it really started to feel like home last season,” Willis said. “To give me an opportunity all the way from the start of the season all the way to the end…I’m grateful to be here."

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