GORHAM — Andrew Richards is an unlikely ace.

He’s not a starting pitcher, but he is the one pitcher Ed Flaherty wants on the mound in a big moment, no matter when that occurs.

“You try to hold them off and bring him in the game when the game’s on the line,” said Flaherty, in his 30th season as the University of Southern Maine baseball coach. “And more often than not he’s going to win it for you.”

And that’s what the Huskies are counting on as they prepare for the NCAA Division III New England regional tournament in Harwich, Massachusetts. USM has won the tournament each of the last two years to advance to the NCAA Division III College World Series, with Richards playing a key role each time.

This year, they may look to him for even more.

“He’s one of the best pitchers I’ve ever seen,” said sophomore third baseman Matt Bender.

He’s one of the best pitchers anyone around here has ever seen, even Flaherty, who called him a “once-in-30-years guy.”

Richards, a senior from South Portland, holds USM records for appearances (98), innings pitched (2932/3), wins (29) and saves (18). He is second in strikeouts (204) and third in ERA (2.30). And he does it with some flair.

Richards throws sidearm, his right arm whipping around his 6-foot-2, 200-pound body and releasing the ball from an angle that the batter seldom sees. It’s something he started doing, he said, “in the backyard with my brothers. We always used a tennis ball and that’s how I threw it. It just felt natural.”

While he doesn’t throw particularly hard – his fastball is in the low 80s – Richards has great command of the strike zone and effectively changes speeds that keep the batters off balance. This year he is 11-4 with nine saves and a 1.62 ERA. He has 97 strikeouts and 18 walks in 1051/3 innings. He appeared in 31 of the Huskies 44 games, starting only two.

And he wants to pitch every day.

“Obviously, that’s what you strive for when you put on the cleats when you’re 12 years old,” said Richards. “You want to be the guy.”

Last Friday he threw six innings to earn a win in relief (on 52 pitches) in the Little East Conference tournament, then came back the next day to start and throw a complete-game victory (113 pitches) in the championship game.

“You can’t really look at the number of innings he’s pitched,” said Flaherty. “I’d bet he doesn’t throw as many pitches as most guys in the country because he’ll get guys out with one pitch. It’s never much over 10 (pitches in an inning). He can come back every day and if he loses any strength he makes it up with the stuff he’s got.”

Andrews throws a cutting fastball, a slider that simply disappears and tinkers with a knuckleball.

“He’s always trying something,” said Flaherty.

Andrews path to USM began at Southern Maine Community College, which he attended to boost his grades. “In high school maybe I wasn’t the best student,” said Richards, who now carries a 3.0 GPA. “I always thought I’d do well here. I just had to go the hard way I guess.”

Richards, a communications major, has one more semester to complete before graduation.

Flaherty knew what Richards could bring to the pitching staff. And while Richards was a starter in high school and at SMCC, Flaherty told him to think about relieving.

“I told Andrew that he was going to make a name for yourself as a relief pitcher,” said Flaherty. “Our bullpen has always been good. And he’s two to three bullpen guys is what he is. He’s a closer, he’s a setup guy, he’s a middle guy.”

Sam Dexter, the Huskies’ outstanding shortstop, said it’s obvious Richards pitches with an edge.

“First of all I think his competitive nature takes over when he gets on the mound,” said Dexter. “He gets a lot of guys out because he keeps the ball low. He’s got some good movement, obviously.

“I just think he’s a competitor out there and never wants the guys to even put the ball in play. That’s what makes him so good.”

Asked if he’s ever concerned that Richards could injure his arm by pitching too much, Dexter said, “I think we’re beyond that at this point.”

And Richards will never turn the ball down.

“I have a weird role on the team, I throw whenever there’s trouble,” he said. “I’m not the setup or the closer. I’m just a pitcher I guess.”


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