In his first two seasons at Arkansas, Richards was like most new pitchers to the college baseball game. A start here, a move to the bullpen there and an injury or two to deal with in between. His story was no different from most.
But unlike so many young arms who never find their way, Richards knew he just needed a chance. And more than anything, he needed a role. While being used as a starting pitcher in high school was nice, Richards relished the ninth-inning duty once it came his way.
"I wouldn't want to be doing anything else," Richards said. "I kind of toyed with (being a closer) last year a little bit. But this year coming in, I knew this was what I was going to be. And from the get-go, it's been something I've wanted to do.
Some would run away from the closer's responsibilities on the baseball diamond. Richards not only didn't run scared, he welcomed it with open arms.
"I take pride in being the guy that everyone has confidence in coming out of the pen and the guy who has to hold onto the lead every time."
His first two seasons looked nothing like the stuff of a dominant stopper. Posting just a 5.64 earned run average as a freshman, Richards waited until late in the season to even contribute out of the bullpen. Then last year, arm soreness limited him again, forcing the 5-foot-11 lefthander to make only 14 appearances.
This year is different, though. Richards is stronger, more mature, more confident and so far the most consistent player on the Razorbacks' roster in 2009.
"The biggest difference is he's healthy," Arkansas coach Dave Van Horn said. "Last year he was having some problems with his arm where it was bothering him. We knew we could probably only throw him one inning, two innings maybe on the weekend. And that needed to be in the same outing. If we tried to throw him Friday and then Sunday, usually the Sunday outing wasn't good.
"He just had some arm issues. He didn't pitch all summer, he just had to rehab and rest it. And he came back in the fall and had a good fall and kind of showed us he was healthy."
Back in full form, Richards is silencing the opponent's bats this year with a low-90s fastball and a tough-to-read slider. Posting a 4-0 record with a team-best 1.16 ERA in 17 appearances, Richards has also thrown in six saves while serving as the most dependable relief man in the Arkansas bullpen.
"Last year, my first time in the closer role, I didn't know a lot about how to act, what to do, how to prepare myself," Richards said. "So that was a learning experience. This year rolled around and I had better idea of what to do.
"It's all about putting everything you've got into one inning."
Appears all Richards needed was a little bit of time. And a chance at the one role he always wanted the most.
"We didn't know (he'd be a closer)," Van Horn said. "We tried to start him as a young pitcher his freshman year, but it was usually two or three innings and then he wasn't real strong after that. So we threw him out in the bullpen and let him come in at the end of some games and it looked like he had a little mentality last year. He did a pretty good job, so we kind of figured it out by process of elimination and maybe by just needing to save some games."
NO. 11 ARKANSAS AT NO. 8 GEORGIA
WHEN: 6 p.m., Friday; 12 p.m., Saturday; 1 p.m., Sunday
WHERE: Foley Field, Athens, Ga.
ON THE AIR: KFAY-AM 1030; KURM-AM 790, FM-100.3; KHGG-AM 1580, FM-103.1; KXIO-FM 106.9
TV: Cox Sports (Ch. 119), Friday and Sunday; Fox Sports Net (Ch. 27), Saturday
RECORDS: Arkansas 25-9, 10-4; Goergia 29-7, 11-4
SERIES RECORD: Razorbacks lead, 19-14
LAST MEETING: Georgia won, 13-2 on Mar. 16, 2008 in Fayetteville
TODAY'S PROBABLE PITCHERS: Arkansas, Dallas Keuchel (5-1, 4.53 ERA); Georgia, Trevor Holder (6-2, 3.86 ERA)
Notable: Richards came to Arkansas as a starting pitcher out of high school, but was moved to the bullpen early in his freshman year. Battled arm soreness as a sophomore and did not play this past summer. His 17 appearances this season already match a career high, and his six saves are the most since Devin Collis' total of nine in 2006.
Quotable: "He's been very good so far this year. Obviously when we get late in the game and we think we have a chance to hold the lead or keep the game close, we bring Stephen in." — Arkansas coach Dave Van Horn
Richards To The Rescue
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