For Jason Richman, baseball became his sanctuary. His teammates became his family.
Richman, a sophomore reliever at Georgia Southern, was in Charleston, S.C., last week for the Southern Conference tournament when he learned on Wednesday that his mother, Natalie, died earlier that day at his family’s home in Alpharetta.
Rather than returning home, Richman determined to stay with the Eagles (39-21) and never lost his focus. He subsequently was named the tournament’s most outstanding player for pitching Georgia Southern to the conference championship and a berth in the NCAA tournament. They were drawn on Monday into a regional with Florida State, Alabama and Kennesaw State and will take on the Seminoles (43-15) in Tallahassee on Friday at 6 p.m.
Kennesaw State, the Atlantic Sun Conference champion, faces Alabama at noon on Friday.
Only Richman’s coaches and teammates knew what had happened. Every day, as he has done all season, Richman would show up at the ballpark ready to do whatever was needed. Six times coach Rodney Hennon put him into a game, the last one a decisive relief appearance in Sunday’s finals, when Richman stopped Samford long enough for his teammates to win 4-3 in the bottom of the ninth.
“One of the most amazing performances I’ve ever seen,” Hennon said.
Assistant coach B.J. Green originally received the call from Richman’s dad, Steven, Wednesday afternoon after the team lost its opening game to Appalachian State. Green and Hennon found Richman, accompanied him to a hotel room and told him that he needed to call his father. There was a family emergency.
A short time later, the team was called together and told the news. The players hugged Richman. They cried together.
Hennon asked Richman if he wanted to go home, promising they would do whatever necessary to make it happen.
It didn’t take long for him to answer. Richman and his father agreed the best thing for him would be to keep playing.
“He’s the glue that holds this team together,” reliever Matt McCall said. “It was huge of him to stick around and fight through that tough situation.”
He came back on Thursday and pitched 1 1/3 innings and perhaps only teammate Will Jackson, who has known Richman since they were underclassmen at Milton High, could tell that his normally outgoing friend was slightly reserved.
Hennon and Green said they didn’t treat him any differently, other than Green occasionally asking if he was OK.
“Perhaps the best thing for him was that sense of normalcy,” Hennon said. “That probably helped him get through what he was dealing with.”
In all, Richman, the Division I leader in appearances, took the mound a tournament-record six times. He pitched 13 1/3 innings and allowed just one earned run.
“He pitched with his heart,” Jackson said. “You could tell how badly he wanted it.”
Richman wasn’t available on Monday, when he was with his family participating in funeral services. The entire team drove up from Statesboro to attend the services for Natalie, who was a principal at Sweet Apple Elementary School in Roswell. She was 47. They were joined by at least 300 people.
Still thinking about his teammates, Richman sent them all texts on Monday thanking them for being there.
“He’s the heart and soul of this team,” Green said.