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Angel Villalona making strides in comeback season

Monday - 7/1/2013, 2:44pm  ET

In this June 25, 2013 photo, San Jose Giants' Angel Villalona runs down the first base line on a single during a baseball game against the Modesto Nuts in San Jose, Calif. Playing professionally again at last, Villalona is thankful for a second chance in the San Francisco Giants' organization. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)

JANIE McCAULEY
AP Baseball Writer

SAN JOSE, Calif. (AP) -- Wearing a big smile as he goes through pregame fielding drills at first base or waits his turn to take batting practice, Angel Villalona is enjoying the most basic aspects of being back on a baseball field.

Playing professionally again at last, he is delivering at the plate and with his glove, going about his business with a quiet professionalism -- thankful for a second chance in the San Francisco Giants' organization at age 22 after four years away dealing with a dismissed murder charge that nearly derailed his career.

"First of all, I'm thankful to God. Each day I'm confident and thank the Giants for all the hard work we've been doing," Villalona said before a game last week, speaking through San Jose hitting coach Lipso Nava. "I'm positive each day and working hard. It's good to be playing here and getting a fresh start. If I have a good day or a bad day, I know the fan support is going to be there."

From the moment Villalona showed up at spring training five months ago, he vowed to return to his former successful self, and he hasn't wavered.

On Monday, he earned a promotion to Double-A Richmond from Class-A San Jose.

He batted .229 with 14 home runs and 42 RBIs while also playing solid defense in 73 games for San Jose.

"Angel was surprised first, then I think it registered and he allowed a huge grin," San Jose manager Andy Skeels said Sunday night. "He has been working very hard and I am glad he's going to get the opportunity to face a new challenge in Double-A Richmond."

This is a long time coming for the former top prospect who received a $2.1 million bonus when San Francisco signed him at age 16 in August 2006 -- the largest bonus San Francisco had ever given to an amateur player at the time.

In February, Villalona finally reported to spring training, a year later than everybody expected. He had his visa delayed the previous year for what the team was told were weight and health issues.

So, Villalona was forced to spend the 2012 season with the Giants' Dominican Summer League affiliate, hitting .303 with seven home runs and 34 RBIs in 44 games.

At each stage, he has declined to discuss the murder case but rather remains focused on moving forward.

"I had faith in God and the team and my work," he said. "I thank the great Giants team for all the work they put in to have me back here again. I've worked hard to be confident in myself and my tools."

Villalona was charged in the September 2009 death of a 25-year-old man after a bar fight in his native La Romana, Dominican Republic. Police said Villalona turned himself in 12 hours after the Sept. 19, 2009, shooting. He was freed on bond that November after the victim's family asked a judge to drop the case. But Villalona, who pleaded innocent to the murder charge, was also stripped of his U.S. visa at the time.

In fall 2011, Villalona dropped a lawsuit against the Giants seeking $5 million in damages after the team decided to reinstate him. He alleged the Giants kept him on the inactive list even though he had been cleared of homicide charges. Villalona had sought back wages and punitive damages.

Still, not until he got back to the Giants' system in the United States would the organization truly know what kind of player it still had.

In early April, Villalona's comeback season began with hitless game after hitless game as he struggled to rediscover the power stroke that drew comparisons to Alex Rodriguez and Adrian Beltre when he was just 16.

Skeels knew he would find out fast just how Villalona would respond when things weren't going his way.

"I've been very encouraged this year. He started off the season really slowly, so I think one of the things we were really looking for was how was he going to handle it?" Skeels said. "Was he going to continue to work his way through it, was he going to handle himself the way we wanted him to? And he did.

"How do you know he's grown up? He doesn't act out when things don't go well. That's an important part of the maturation process."

Villalona batted .208 in April, and his opening month started with a 2-for-41 funk and eight hitless games in his first 10. Then, he quickly turned things around on the way to becoming a California League All-Star. He went 2 for 4 with a strikeout as the designated hitter in a 12-2 loss to the Carolina League All-Stars on June 18 in San Jose.

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