Richmond manager Mark McQueen may have no idea how Brett Williams is able to throw eight innings when he doesn't have his best stuff, but it sure came in use Friday afternoon as the Spiders took down the La Salle Explorers, 5-2, in the first game of a critical weekend series.
Williams threw 109 pitches in his eight innings of work while giving up a pair of runs. What was most impressive about his outing was how he did it. After an eight-pitch first inning, Williams labored from the second through the fifth inning but limited the damage to a solo home run in the second and a sacrifice fly in the fourth.
"It's the same thing he's been doing all year long," McQueen said. "You look up and he doesn't look like he has great stuff and then all of a sudden you're in the eighth inning and probably have a lead."
This is the second straight time that Williams has pitched at least eight innings and the fourth time this year. He improved his record to 6-1 and brought his ERA under 3, to 2.92.
The tall lefty, who sat out last year after transferring from Xavier University, has become a revelation for the Spiders as they seek to make the Atlantic 10 Conference playoffs. Williams admitted that he didn't have his best stuff working against La Salle but, as with all good pitchers, found a way to work around that and provide an ace-like performance.
"I didn't have my best fastball today but I realized that around the middle innings and started using my off-speed which made my fastball look harder," Williams said. "I rode that until the end of the game."
For a while, it looked like Williams' adjustments were not going to be enough for the Spiders to get the win against the Explorers. La Salle's Kevin Fuqua held Richmond in check for the first five innings but slipped up in the sixth.
His first mistake of walking senior Derek Boliek was erased as Boliek was thrown out trying to steal second but Fuqua wasn't so lucky for the rest of the inning. After another walk and single, Chris Cowell — who had hit a pair of balls hard in his first two at-bats but had no hits to show for it — drove a 2-0 pitch to the warning track in left field to drive in a run and tie the game at 2. Senior Billy Barber then hit the next pitch for an infield single and drive in the game-winning run.
Although part of Richmond's rally was due to Fuqua losing some of his accuracy but some of the credit goes to McQueen. Before the inning started, he gathered his team in the dugout to try to motivate his players.
"Fuqua's is one of their best pitchers, he's a bulldog and how he goes, their team goes," McQueen said. "So we said, 'Hey, we are going to have to beat this team right here and he's a heck of a pitcher.' So we went up there a little more free and swinging and took some chances."
Mike Mergenthaler gave some room for closer Alex Maffett — who picked up his fifth save of the year — in the bottom of the eighth. Matt Zink reached base to start the inning after getting hit by a pitch but was out at second on a fielder's choice hit by JB Gadd. Mergenthaler gave Maffett a three-run lead as he drove a 1-1 pitch deep to center field for a resounding home run.
Richmond is off to a good start in a critical stretch that will determine whether the team will make the A-10 tournament. It entered the game tied for fifth with Fordham University but has a chance to solidify its position in the six-team tournament with a pair of weekend series against second-place La Salle and first-place University of North Carolina at Charlotte next weekend.
McQueen said he didn't address the importance of this weekend's series before Friday's game, but Williams said the he knew how important these series were for the Spiders' season.
"Our season is make-it-or-break-it the next two weekends with Charlotte and La Salle," he said. "So pretty much we needed to come out here and establish ourselves and get a win under our belt so that we can go out and win one of the next two at least to win a series.
"That's the whole goal. To win a series [against La Salle] and then go out and win a series against Charlotte and get set up well for the A-10 tournament."
Contact staff writer Andrew Prezioso at firstname.lastname@example.org