2018 marked the third season in a row that pitcher Austen Williams was on the Harrisburg Senators’ opening day roster. Without mincing words, the previous two stints did not go well for the 6-foot-3 right-hander.
As part of the starting rotation each season, Williams combined for 20 starts where he went 2-13 with a 6.24 ERA while opponents batted .326 off him. Both times, those disastrous results earned him mid-season demotions back to High-A Potomac for the rest of the year.
So when Williams’ name was once again on the Senators’ opening day roster this season, it wasn’t hard to imagine a similar path.
It didn’t matter that the Nationals had shifted the 25-year-old out of the role as a starting pitcher and into the bullpen. He threw as a reliever in the Arizona Fall League and that didn’t exactly work out as he was routinely lit up to the tune of a 10.67 ERA in nine appearances.
But through the first two months of the season, Williams has looked like an entirely different pitcher for the Senators.
Gone is the starter who would nibble on the edges of the plate and try to make the perfect pitch the moment runners got into scoring position. Instead, it’s been replaced by an aggressive approach where he believes in his pitches and challenges every batter.
“The move to the bullpen allows me to focus more on two pitches,” Williams said. “I think as a starter I needed to have a better third pitch and it wasn’t what it needed to be. It wasn’t one thing over night. It was some little things that compounded the last two years. I think I just found a role in the bullpen that fits me better.”
Off the field Williams is one of the more soft-spoken members of the clubhouse, but with every dominating performance he delivers you can see his on-field demeanor changing to a guy that wants the ball and is beginning to thrive as the center of attention on the mound. Friday night against the Portland Sea Dogs was just the latest example of this as he was nearly untouchable striking out five over two hitless innings to pick up the extra-inning win and lower his season ERA to 1.50 and WHIP to 1.042.
“I think he’s got confidence,” manager Matt LeCroy said. “This year he’s found a niche in the bullpen by keeping the balls down and getting ahead of hitters. In the past he didn’t have that same swagger.”
Harrisburg pitching coach Michael Tejera got his first look at Williams in the AFL when he was on the staff for the Mesa Solar Sox last fall. Despite the double-digit ERA and struggles, Tejera saw the change coming for the Texas State product.
“You could see the progress he was making,” Tejera said. “This year he has taken it to another level. Everybody’s impressed with the progress he has made. And now having success, his level of confidence is very high and we are seeing what he is capable of doing.”
“It’s tough when things are going bad to really trust your stuff,” Williams said. “I think it was just a process having to go through that where I had to learn how to manage it. And although I haven’t had too many tough situations yet this year, I think just having 100 percent confidence in what you’re throwing.
“I feel like I can throw whatever I want and let it play in the strike zone and still get outs.”