Garrett Williams has battled control since coming to the Eastern League this season.
San Francisco's ninth-ranked prospect has more walks in 43 1/3 fewer innings than his 2017 campaign. And although he didn't buck that trend Wednesday, he made up for it by suppressing the hit column.
Video: Richmond's Williams records his third strikeout
Williams (2-4) issued four free passes and hit a batter but yielded just one single over six innings as Double-A Richmond defeated Trenton, 5-1, at ARM & HAMMER Park.
"I was just able to make pitches when I needed to," he said, crediting the effectiveness of his changeup and sinker while remaining apprehensive of the bite on his curveball. "Fastball command was spotty again today, but I was able to utilize my off-speed ... to get out of innings."
It marked the first scoreless performance this season for the 23-year-old, who lowered his ERA by nearly a full run to 5.84. Williams hadn't pitched without allowing a run since he scattered three hits over five innings for Class A Advanced San Jose against Visalia last Aug. 22.
"[Wednesday night's start] was definitely a step in the right direction from my past outings this year, so you take positives from it and go from there," Williams said. "Just trusting the process. Continuing to work better every single day. I felt like I've made strides since the beginning of the season."
Gameday box score
The seventh-round selection in the 2016 Draft hadn't gone into the fifth inning in his five previous starts. Over that span, he allowed 19 runs and walked 19 batters in 16 1/3 innings. He said problems with fastball command have been consistent since his EL debut, the only start this season in which he hasn't allowed a walk.
"For me to get past that wall that I've been hitting a couple times, the coaches having trust in me and having more confidence in myself, we'll see where it goes from there," he said.
Although he did not debut until mid-May last year, Williams came on strong in his first full season. The Lubbock, Texas native began the campaign with Class A Augusta, posting a 4-3 record with a 2.25 ERA and 58 strikeouts over 12 appearances, 11 starts. He was elevated to the California League on July 31 and went 2-2 with a 2.45 ERA and 38 whiffs over 33 innings in six games, five as a starter.
Despite getting the majority of his outs through the air Wednesday night, his sinker-changeup combination has made him an effective ground-ball specialist, inducing more that two-and-a-half groundouts for every flyout. With this ability, he's proven stingy when it comes to preventing the long ball. Williams has been tagged for one homer this season after giving up just three all last year. In 174 innings as a professional, he's surrendered just five roundtrippers.
"Tonight, they were just trying to get the ball up in the air," Williams said. "Luckily, they didn't make any hard contact with it. I normally have more ground balls than I do fly balls, so that helps with keeping the ball in the park. Maybe some pitches were elevated, but they were able to make contact with it but not too hard."
But his walk total has risen this year. The Oklahoma State product threw 97 total innings in 2017 and issued 35 free passes, a mark he eclipsed with his fourth walk Wednesday night.
"Without fastball command, it's tough to get hitters out at any level," Williams said. "I'm not real sure what was going on, but I feel like I'm getting back to where I'm comfortable with myself."
On Wednesday, he dealt with a runner on base in four of his first five innings. He plunked Jeff Hendrix to start the game and walked the leadoff batter in the second, fourth and sixth.
Trenton broke through for their first hit with one out in Williams' final frame. Ryan McBroom knocked a single into center to put runners at the corners. But the 6-foot-1, 200-pound lefty got the next batter, Billy Fleming, to pop to second base. Trey Amburgey attempted to tag up and score from third, but he was thrown out at the plate by Miguel Gomez.
"It gives me a lot of confidence ... even though the box score showed I did really well, I felt like I still wasn't playing at my best," Williams said. "It gives me confidence knowing that tonight wasn't my best night, but I was still able to go out there and throw up six scoreless innings."
Williams, who has consistently eclipsed 75 pitches in his past four difficult starts, exited after throwing 40 of 78 for strikes as the Squirrels clung to a 1-0 lead.
"It was a close game. With the way I've been throwing, I think it was a smart decision on the coaches' end," he said. "[To] get a quality start was a big, huge step in the right direction. I was able to hand it off to the bullpen, to the guys that were able to help me close the door."
Dylan Davis doubled and drove in two runs on a three-hit night and San Francisco's No. 22 prospect Ryan Howard collected two singles and scored twice for Richmond.
McBroom also spoiled the shutout with a ninth-inning homer off Flying Squirrels right-hander Patrick Ruotolo. Yankees No. 13 prospect Trevor Stephan (0-2) allowed a run on five hits and a walk with six strikeouts over five innings. Seventh-ranked Domingo Acevedo was tagged for four runs on seven hits and a walk while striking out a pair in the final four frames.