There are any number of words that can be used to describe East Carolina’s 2017 baseball season.
Disappointing, frustrating and painful are among the first that come to mind.
That’s why it’s somehow fitting that a season that began with such high hope and promise should end the way it did Sunday.
It’s not that the Pirates lost their final game. That seemed all but inevitable based on their last place finish during the American Athletic Conference’s regular season. Rather, it’s the circumstances surrounding the way that loss — a 6-0 whitewash at the hands of Houston in the AAC tournament championship game — came about.
Coach Cliff Godwin and his team bowed out in the most disappointing, frustrating, painful way possible.
They flirted with redemption and closed in on an NCAA tournament bid by pounding top-seeded Central Florida, rallying for three in the ninth to stun South Florida then getting the pitching performance of a lifetime from freshman Jake Agnos to beat UCF again and advance to the championship round undefeated.
“Everyone believed in our ability,” Agnos said after his seven innings of two-hit shutout ball in the semifinal. “We’ve played good baseball. It just didn’t work out for us. We’ve faced some adversity. We’ve played bits and pieces all season, but [we’re] putting it together now.”
All the injuries and the underachieving, including those 10 straight losses to open the conference season, were all poised to be forgotten with just one more win.
The Pirates even had their ace Evan Kruczynski on the mound for the only game that really mattered this year.
Kruczynski passed up a chance to get drafted last spring to return for his senior season and a situation just like this.
It couldn’t have been set up more perfectly.
As it turned out, though, the setup was too good to be true.
Kruczynski, who pitched and won in the tournament opener four days earlier, clearly didn’t have his best stuff Sunday. He gutted out four innings, giving up two runs on seven hits before giving way to the bullpen.
It really didn’t matter what happened from that point on the way Cougars’ starter John King was handcuffing ECU’s usually potent lineup. The Pirates’ last best chance came to an unhappy end when they left the bases loaded without scoring in the bottom of the seventh.
As disappointing as the anticlimactic result might have been, it was anything but a surprise.
The underdog might routinely defy the odds and come out on top in Hollywood. But on the actual field of play, more times than not the better team usually wins.
For all the talent and experience the Pirates had on their roster in 2017 and for all of Godwin’s encouragement to “stay in the moment” and “be where their feet are,” they were still the No. 8 seed for a reason.
Houston, which also went unbeaten leading up to the final, is ranked 17th nationally and was the tournament’s No. 2 seed. It played at a high level all season, not just for a few days at just the right time. That consistency was enough to merit selection on Sunday as one of 16 teams that will host an NCAA regional.
In other words, the Pirates didn’t get what they wanted. They got what they deserved.
It’s a shame the tournament’s championship round didn’t follow the double elimination format used during the rest of the event. Had the final been a best-of-three affair, ECU could very well have found a way to win the two games it needed to steal the tournament title and fulfill its preseason prediction of a conference championship.
Because it wasn’t, we’ll never know what might have happened.
That only makes the inevitable result all the more disappointing, frustrating and painful.