Andrew Richards greeted me with a handshake and a smile that suddenly became a very visible grimace. He yanked the hand attached to his valuable right arm away from mine.

He saw my look of horror.

“Just kidding,” said Richards. He enjoyed the moment.

He’s the University of Southern Maine relief pitcher with the resilient right arm and the quirky humor that keeps everything in balance.

One year after becoming a local folk hero to baseball fans in Maine, he and his teammates are back on the grand stage of the NCAA Division III championships in Appleton, Wisconsin, this Memorial Day weekend.

USM played Wisconsin-Whitewater in the last game of the tournament’s first round Friday night. It’s a double-elimination format and Coach Ed Flaherty won’t hesitate to beckon Richards into any game, maybe every game.

Richards said his arm was fine before the team boarded a flight Wednesday in Portland. He’s never felt better. Not that he would say otherwise.

He pitches in a time where durability and arm health of all pitchers are questioned. So many walk off the mound clutching their pitching arms in pain and facing surgery, there’s fear of an epidemic. Major league managers, and college and high school coaches are accused of overusing star pitchers. Boys who aren’t yet men are encouraged to throw even harder and faster to impress those who can further their careers.

Then there’s Richards, a 21-year-old junior from South Portland. He can throw hundreds of pitches in a doubleheader on one day and maybe a thousand in one week. His amazing resilence last spring was highlighted by his ironman performance on the last day of last year’s NCAA championships.

Relieving early in one game and starting the next with only one hour of rest in between, Richards threw 242 pitches over 151/3 innings. It was an amazing effort. It also led to second-guessing when USM opened its 2014 season in Florida. Richards appeared to be scuffling.

“I heard the criticism,” said Richards, grimacing in annoyance this time.

What he heard was more concern and caring than criticism. His likeability quotient is high on a team of very likeable small-college players. Mainers unfamiliar with USM baseball were asking me about Richards.

Richards’ arm was probably fine. USM went into the season with a new third baseman (senior Troy Thibodeau) and a new second baseman (freshman Paul McDonough).

USM led the nation in double plays last year and Richards induces most batters to hit ground balls. To compensate for the inexperience in his infield, Richards tried throwing harder. His pitches moved up in the strike zone and opposing hitters found more success.

I asked the people at USM if anyone had put a radar gun on Richards’ fastball to clock its speed. Apparently not. Speed is not his strength. Location is.

In fact, he is very hittable. He gave up 82 hits in 722/3 innings this year. He had an earned-run average of 3.84, which is good but not an indicator of a shut-down relief pitcher. But there’s a mental strength behind his good humor.

“My brother taught me that I didn’t need to get strikeouts to be effective,” said Richards. “I got away from that.”

He was one of the four brothers growing up in the Richards house. Baseball was their passion, whether they played in their front yard or at nearby South Portland High.

Cousins and friends filled out the pickup teams. Andrew, the third-youngest, was the designated outfielder. He wanted to pitch. His older brother, Kevin, soon showed him how.

“I guess I did tell him that if he could get an out with one pitch, that was better for him,” said Kevin. “But I wasn’t really a pitcher, I played second base. I’m five years older and when he was in Little League I was just being a big brother.”

Kevin Richards is a new homeowner. When he left for work early Wednesday morning, he discovered a new USM baseball cap on his porch. It was a gift from Andrew.

Ask Andrew Richards what pitcher he identifies with and he immediately says Pedro Martinez for the former Red Sox ace’s arm slot. Pedro didn’t come over the top when he pitched. His releases were a bit lower. Richards throws the same. That Pedro had a sense of humor when he wasn’t on the mound isn’t a coincidence.

Ask Richards when he thinks he needs a day off and he shakes his head no. “I think of myself as a position player. I want to pitch every day.”

Maybe he’s a 6-foot-2, 180-pound freak of nature. Flaherty doesn’t think so. “He’s an easy-going kid with an easy delivery. I know he watches a lot of baseball. He talks it all the time. He can tell me how he’s going to get out the No. 7 hitter or any hitter on the other team.

“He brings us a sense of ease when he’s sitting in the bullpen. If we need him he’s there.”

Like a firefighter in a station house, waiting for the call. He’ll get more than one this weekend.

Steve Solloway can be contacted at 791-6412 or at:

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