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ARLINGTON, Texas -- It is not overly common to have your opening-day centerfielder turn into your everyday shortstop. But that's exactly what happened to UTA's RJ Williams in 2017.
Considered by UTA Coach Darin Thomas to be UTA's best defensive option in centerfield to open the year, Williams made seven starts at each center and third base in the early days of February and March.
A season-ending injury to shortstop Josh Minjarez created a void in the UTA lineup and infield. Thomas, known for creating a group of versatile defenders who can shuffle throughout the diamond, turned to Williams to replace Minjarez.
"Wherever the team needs me, I want to be in there," Williams said. "My freshman year I played outfield as well, sophomore year I transitioned and played a lot of third and then last year after Josh (Minjarez) got injured I moved to short. I've gotten really comfortable over there."
The Rockwall, Texas, native excelled in the role voided by the injured Minjarez, who was coming off a promising 2016 season as the everyday starter at shortstop. In his 37 starts at short, Williams hit .307 with 10 doubles, 20 runs, and 17 RBI, fielding .950.
"I've always felt comfortable at shortstop," Williams said. "Knowing that you are going to be playing there, I guess that helps, but when Josh got injured I knew I had to take on that role. It makes you feel good that people are counting on you but I also know that wherever our team needs the most, I am capable of feeling comfortable at."
Despite getting off to a slugging offensive start that saw him hitting .128 through mid-March, Williams rebounded with a blistering pace to end the year. He reached base safely in 41 of his 49 starts and finished the year leading the Mavs in doubles (11) and the league in doubles in Sun Belt play (10).
Williams, a 5-foot-10, 180-pounder, hit .258 (49-for-190) overall with a .353 on-base percentage and a 22-30 walk-strikeout ratio as a junior.
Now as a polished senior, Williams has experienced it all in college baseball. He's played in 163 games in his career, over 51 in each of his first three years, and has 143 career hits. Williams is among the UTA career record holders in hit by pitch (23), part of his unyielding on-base approach.
"I've always been a table setter in high school, that's what I've always been," Williams said. "I know my role, I'm not a huge power guy but I feel like I can hit doubles, getting on base and letting the other guys do the power work. The top of the order role is what I've always done.With Minjarez returning to health in 2018, it gives Thomas great veteran options in how to fill out the lineup card. Both players are capable of playing top-line defense at either spot on the left side of the infield and the outfield boasts several strong options, including proven infield/outfield utility options in Christian Hollie and Zac Cook.
"It's really good to have those guys that can play all over, those utility guys," Williams said. "You can work together to put the best lineup that you can on that given day. Cook, I know he has experience in the infield, but I think he'll be an asset in the outfield this year. Christian, he can play in the outfield and second base. It's nice to be able to build your lineup around who is hitting at that time. All about making the best lineup we can."
No matter where Williams plays in the UTA lineup in 2018, his veteran leadership, defensive presence and run-creating ability is a great positive for the Mavs.
"We have great team chemistry," Williams said. "A lot of us have been playing together for a while. We all like being around each other and have really messed well. It's the best team I've been on since I've been here. We're ready to get started."
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