GORHAM – Andrew Richards pitched five innings of shutout relief Saturday to set the stage for a late-inning comeback as the University of Southern Maine downed UMass-Dartmouth 4-2 to win the Little East Conference baseball championship.
The top-seeded Huskies (37-7), ranked 16th nationally and second in New England behind Wheaton by d3baseball.com, repeated as league champion and advanced to the NCAA Division III regionals.
The matchups and locations for the regionals will be announced Sunday with play opening Wednesday.
Richards, a sophomore, stuck to the basics when he entered in the fifth inning, an approach that has helped all season.
“I just took it inning by inning because you can’t think ahead,” Richards said. “You think of that game at that point, what the situation is, and battle right through it. We stayed in the game, scored late and just had to hold them.”
Richards, from South Portland, allowed four hits and improved to 6-1.
He has flourished in the versatile role he assumed in the Huskies’ bullpen. Throughout the season he has been used in nearly every situation, making 25 appearances, all in relief.
“Andrew’s the reason, from our pitching staff, that you can win 37 games,” said USM Coach Ed Flaherty. “With him you are not out of any game. If you start to falter, you bring him in and that really helps, and that’s why I leave him in the bullpen.”
Richards minimized the damage after fifth-seeded UMass- Dartmouth (18-23) took a 2-1 lead in the fifth.
Alex Newton, the Corsairs’ first baseman from Saco, started the inning with a single. A walk, two wild pitches and an error signaled the end of the day for USM starter Tyler Leavitt. Richards came on and got out of the inning, thanks in part to a remarkable diving catch by Huskies first baseman John Carey on a pop-foul bunt.
“That was one of the greatest plays I’ve ever seen,” said Richards. “I didn’t think he had a chance on that ball and he came through.”
UMass-Dartmouth starter Nick Fuller (4-6) kept the Huskies in check for five innings, escaping a two-out, bases-loaded situation in the second.
Fuller allowed a run in the third and got out of a jam in the fifth after the Huskies had runners on second and third with one out.
“I knew we would have our hands full with (Fuller),” said Flaherty. “He was pitching on short rest but he’s a workhorse and a battler. Our kids had trouble with him and we were fortunate to get what we got off him today.”
Southern Maine jumped back into the lead for good in the sixth.
Forrest Chadwick, Nick Grady and Chris Bernard loaded the bases with consecutive singles to open the inning. Carey followed with a sacrifice fly that tied the game. Matt Verrier’s groundout gave USM a 3-2 lead.
The Huskies completed the scoring in the seventh. Tucker White, who gave USM a 1-0 lead with a run-scoring single in the third, stroked a two-out triple and Chadwick drove him home with a single.
NOTES: The Corsairs advanced to the deciding game with a 7-6 victory against Eastern Connecticut earlier in the day. They started Saturday at 9 a.m. by completing a 21-5 win over UMass-Boston that was postponed in the eighth inning Friday due to darkness. USM’s Grady was named the tournament’s most valuable player after hitting .588 with eight RBI in four games.