There are five words in the English language that can bring warmth to even the coldest winter day.
They are: “Pitchers and catchers report today!”
We’re still a couple of weeks away from being able to say those magic words with the opening of Major League Baseball spring training camps. But there’s a variation of the sentence that’s currently more apropos and much more encouraging to East Carolina fans suffering through an intolerably depressing basketball season.
It is: “College baseball practice has begun!”
The bats and balls came out of mothballs for the first official workout on Friday at Clark-LeClair Stadium. The highlight of the three-hour practice was an intrasquad scrimmage in which the Pirates’ pitchers faced live hitters for the first time since last fall.
While that might not seem like an overly uplifting occasion to some considering how disappointing the 2017 season was for coach Cliff Godwin and his Pirates, it is reason for optimism — if for no other reason than it represents the opportunity for a fresh start.
And nothing brings about hope more than a fresh start.
Besides, there are more than a few reasons to believe that the Super Regional appearance of 2016 was closer to the norm than last year’s 7-17 disaster of a conference record.
Consider the perfect storm of circumstances that went into sabotaging ECU’s 2017 high hopes.
There were the injuries to key players, including those that sidelined ace pitcher Evan Kruczynski and top hitter Dwanya Williams-Sutton for long stretches of the season. There was the distraction that led to the dismissal of closer Joe Ingle. There were the bad bounces and missed opportunities that led to close losses — starting with the three on opening weekend at Ole Miss that got things off on the wrong foot.
And, of course, the burden of lofty expectations.
The Pirates began last season ranked No. 6 nationally by Baseball America and were the overwhelming pick to win the American Athletic Conference, receiving six of eight possible first-place votes. Although the preseason predictions turned out to be fool’s gold, they weren’t completely unwarranted thanks to the return of 19 lettermen, along with the addition of a highly-regarded recruiting class.
This year’s team will be much less of a known-quantity. But even without the veteran nucleus of Kruczynski, dependable catcher Tyler Watkins, All-AAC third baseman Eric Tyler and other graduated seniors, along with signee and first-round MLB draft pick MacKenzie Gore, the 2018 Pirates will hardly be devoid of talent.
The pitching staff appears solid, especially at the top of the rotation where sophomores Trey Benton and Jake Agnos have the makings of an impactful 1-2 weekend punch.
Benton, a right-hander from West Columbus High School, struck out 74 in 71 innings last season.
Agnos, a lefty from Virginia, finished on a high note by throwing seven shutout innings against Central Florida to send ECU into the AAC tournament championship game.
Offensively, powerful young first baseman/DH Spencer Brickhouse, who earned Freshman All-America honors after belting 10 homers a year ago, anchors a lineup that also features a healthy Williams-Sutton and fellow veteran bats Turner Brown, Bryant Packard and Dusty Baker.
They’re joined by a freshman class ranked among the nation’s top 20, led by Gavin Williams — a hard-throwing pitcher who actually did make it to campus after getting drafted last spring (Round 30 by the Tampa Bay Rays).
It’s not the kind of team that will get a lot of love in the preseason polls, especially with the challenging schedule Godwin has put together for it. But that just helps take the pressure off and puts the Pirates in a position to overachieve.
And who knows? If the young players grow up fast and all the pieces fit together just right, maybe this will turn out to be the season ECU hoped to have a year ago.
After a 2017 campaign in which everything that could possibly have gone wrong did go wrong, the Pirates are due for a few breaks.