Gavin Williams Shows Ace Potential For East Carolina
GREENVILLE, N.C. - On Friday, in No. 8 East Carolina’s 7-0 win against Cincinnati, righthander Gavin Williams showed what kind of weapon he can be in the rotation. He threw 6.2 scoreless innings, giving up four hits and three walks with a career-high 13 strikeouts.
From ECU’s perspective, it would have been hard to draw up a better outing for Williams. He sat 94-96 mph with his fastball right out of the gate, but more than that, he was commanding that pitch well and pounding the strike zone with it.
From the second inning on, he worked in his slider more often and it was clear he had command of that offering as well, both dropping it in for called strikes and getting whiffs on it. He also sprinkled in a few effective changeups here and there, giving him a solid handle on three pitches. His fastball velocity never dropped, as he was still reaching back for 95 as he surpassed 100 pitches and he had multiple strikeouts in six different frames.
His stressful pitches were also minimal. Just once in the first six innings did Cincinnati get a runner to third base. That came in the third, when a two-out walk to Cole Harting and a single off the bat of Jace Mercer put runners on the corners. Williams deftly got out of the jam, though, with a swinging strikeout of Joey Bellini on a 96 mph fastball.
In the seventh, the Bearcats once again mounted a rally, loading the bases with two outs on a walk, single and hit by pitch. ECU lifted Williams after the hit batter, which allowed him to walk off to a standing ovation, and righthander Carter Spivey came on and got a strikeout of Bellini to end the threat and preserve Williams’ clean ledger.
When you consider it being a conference opponent, how deep he worked into the game and his dominance within the game, it has to be considered the best start of Williams’ career.
“He really had, in my opinion, his whole arsenal working today at times,” coach Cliff Godwin said. “It’s really hard on hitters because you can’t sell out for one pitch.”
To be clear, some of it being a career-best start has to do with the fact that Williams simply doesn’t have that many starts in his career. Now in his fourth season in an ECU uniform, this was only his eighth start. And that relative lack of experience, combined with some minor injuries that he has collected throughout his career, made him something of a wildcard coming into this season.
There’s never been any doubting the stuff. He’s always thrown hard, and in shorter outings, he’s even been up to 101 mph. But he’d thrown just 68 innings coming into the season, with a career-long outing of five innings. Command could also be an issue at times, with an average of more than four walks per nine innings coming into 2021.
So while there was hope that Williams could be an effective starter, his chances to prove it had been limited and his results in those opportunities had been inconsistent. Also, with a fastball that reaches triple digits, it was always going to be easy to peg him as a more natural fit in the bullpen and dismiss his chances to start games.
“Gavin has been given some adversity that wasn’t his fault,” Godwin said. “He’s always worked hard, it just has been unfortunate, I guess you could call it luck, but bad things happen to good people all the time and for him to persevere through those things has allowed him to be what he is today.”
What he is today is one of the most effective pitchers in the country. In six appearances, the last three of which have been starts as he was ramped up to a starter’s workload, he’s 3-0, 0.68 with 42 strikeouts and a .151 opponent batting average in 26.1 innings, and he’s seemingly gotten better each time out.
In fact, until this start against Cincinnati became the best in his career, his best start was probably his outing last weekend against Elon, when he gave up four hits and one walk with 11 strikeouts in six shutout frames. And he hasn’t given up a run since the first inning of his start against Illinois State on March 19, a span of 16.2 innings.
One of the biggest advances he’s made is being able to use his slider as more of a weapon. That helps keep hitters from sitting and waiting on a fastball and also helps make him more of a complete pitcher rather than a thrower who leans on velocity above all else.
The slider was just as much of a putaway pitch Friday as the fastball, with roughly half of his strikeouts coming on the offering, including his final two punchouts of the day, both swinging, in the seventh.
“A pretty good amount, honestly,” Williams said of how much his slider has helped him this season. “Dylan Lawson should get the credit for it. He’s helped me out a lot with it. He showed me where to grip it and everything.”
If that’s the case, East Carolina owes Lawson, a second-year freshman righthander, a debt of gratitude for helping give the Pirates what looks like the best rotation in the American Athletic Conference and one that is more than good enough to lead the team on a deep postseason run.
With some uncertainty about what Williams would be able to contribute as a starter and with the departure of Alec Burleson through the draft, there were some questions in the rotation to begin the 2021 season.
The floor of the group was always going to be pretty high with the return of lefthander Jake Kuchmaner and righthander Tyler Smith, both dependable, experienced starters. And to this point of the season, both have been exactly that.
But two things have decidedly raised the ceiling for the rotation. One is the emergence of second-year freshman lefthander Carson Whisenhunt, whose last two starts haven’t been stellar, but who gave up just three runs in his first 22.2 innings of this season.
The other, of course, is Williams making a case that he’s not just a hard thrower who can dominate in shorter outings, but rather a workhorse starting pitcher who can lead a rotation. And never has that point been hammered home better than it was on Friday.