There are several reasons why this is East Carolina’s most anticipated baseball season ever.
There is ample talent returning from a team that beat defending national champion Virginia in the Charlottesville regional in 2016 and went on to win the program’s first ever Super Regional game at Texas Tech.
Coach Cliff Godwin brought in a highly-regarded recruiting class, portions of which should impact right away.
The Pirates open the season at a Southeastern Conference program, Ole Miss, which reached the College World Series with Godwin as an assistant coach in 2014 while he was wearing No. 23 in honor of the late ECU coach, Keith LeClair.
The national polls have taken notice of the Pirates’ potential and ECU is ranked as high as No. 6.
There is a new scoreboard at Clark-LeClair Stadium and other renovations are in place. The Pirates are hopeful of hosting a regional and a Super Regional before making a long-awaited trip to Omaha.
The journey starts in Oxford, MS, at 5 p.m. (ET) today against a Rebels team that was 43-19 overall last season and 18-12 in the SEC. Ole Miss hosted a regional last year, losing to Utah 6-5 in 10 innings and 6-5 to Tulane.
The three-game set with the Rebels continues with a 2:30 p.m. game Saturday and a 1 p.m. start on Sunday.
“I just want us to play somebody else,” Godwin said. “The thing is to get our guys out on the field and play somebody in a different uniform. We’re looking to play our best baseball. We want to pitch well. We want to play good defense and we want to put a lot of pressure on them offensively. If we do that, the winning and losing will take care of itself.”
Two-thirds of the starting rotation for the weekend has been determined.
“Evan Kruczynski is going to pitch on Friday and Jacob Wolfe is going to pitch on Saturday,” Godwin said. “We’re going to go TBA right now on Sunday.”
A preseason All-America, Kruczynski was 8-1 in his 17 starts last year as a junior. The left-hander had a 2.01 earned run average.
Wolfe, another senior southpaw, was 6-4 last year with a 2.95 ERA.
The possibilities for the Sunday assignment depends on who has pitched earlier in the series.
“You’ve got Trey Benton, you’ve got Tyler Smith, you have Sam Lanier, you have Joe Ingle, you have Jake Agnos, Chris Holba, possibly on Sunday, ton of options,” Godwin said. “We’re just going to see who doesn’t pitch out of the bullpen the first two days and go from there.”
That group of potential Sunday starters also comprises the pitchers who could get mid-week starting assignments.
“If you don’t pitch on the weekend, then that will definitely give you an option to pitch in the middle of the week,” Godwin said. “We have more options than we’ve ever had here. Just because we haven’t named somebody, that doesn’t mean we don’t have somebody to fill that role. I could name somebody but then if they pitch out of the bullpen, that’s going to be a lie. I don’t want to do that. I want to make sure that we don’t give out any information that is not accurate.”
Hopefully, the Pirates don’t need much in the way of long relief, but Holba, Evan Voliva, Hunter Hood would be hurlers who could fill that role.
“We have a lot of guys who can close and a lot of guys who can be set-up men,” Godwin said. “The way we’re going into it is if we bring Joe Ingle in in the fifth inning on Friday night, we’re going to let him go as long as he can and then we’ll finish with whoever. Saturday, we’ll come in with Matt Bridges and let him go as long as he can or Sam Lanier or Vic Agnos.
“Really, I think it’s a luxury to have four or five guys who can go in there and either bridge the gap or close or whatever we need.”
Agnos, Benton and Smith are freshmen.
“They’re all special,” Godwin said of the newcomers. “They’ve got electric stuff. (Agnos, left-hander) is going to pitch at 88 to 92 (mph) but his fast ball plays up. Good breaking ball. Good change-up. He’s got front-line Friday night stuff. So does Trey Benton and so does Tyler Smith. If they’re not used out of the bullpen on Friday, Saturday, they’re possibilities to pitch on Sunday.”
Travis Watkins will be behind the plate.
Watkins’ walkoff homer at Virginia sent the Pirates to the Super Regional. He hit two out in Lubbock as ECU won the opener 8-6 in Lubbock. Eric Tyler is back at third. Turner Brown has experience at short. Charlie Yorgen is at second for his senior season. Freshman Spencer Brickhouse will be at first since Bryce Harman is injured (wrist).
The experienced infield helped ECU hit .289 as a team last year.
Dwanya Williams-Sutton, the American Athletic Conference’s leading hitter last season with a .360 average as a freshman, will start in left.
In center field on opening day will be transfer Andrew Henrickson from Pitt Community College.
“Right field, depending on who they’re pitching, could be Bryant Packard, T.J. Rials, Luke Bolka . . . and also Tyler Edwards,” Godwin said.
The designated hitter likely would come from among the right field candidates.
The newcomers are the unknowns as far as improving on 2016.
“[Henrickson], is a game changer, defensively,” Godwin said. “He can really run. He has a plus arm in the outfield. As good as Garrett Brooks was for us for a few years here, I think Andrew has got a chance to be even more special just because he’s faster than Garrett and still gets the same jumps. Then he’s got a really good arm. Offensively, he’s going to put pressure on a defense because of his speed. He’s hits left-handed.
“In right field, you have Bryant Packard, who is from Greenville (D.H. Conley High School), left-handed hitter. Power to all fields, a really special talent.
“You have T.J. Rials, who is a junior college guy, a left-handed hitter who can run. He has power in his bat as well, gap power.
“You have Tyler Edwards, a right-handed hitter who is a power hitter, a more-physical type of an outfielder. Spencer Brickhouse at first base is a power left-handed hitter.”
The batting order will depend to a degree on who the opposition has on the mound.
“There’s nothing set in stone right now,” Godwin said. “Eric Tyler and Travis Watkins and Bryce, when he’s healthy, and Luke Bolka, those guys are going to hit in the middle of the lineup. Dwanya will probably hit somewhere in the front. Charlie will probably hit second. After that, it’s still up in the air.”
A number of players exited the program when Godwin returned to his alma mater after the 2014 season. He was demanding. The current Pirates know what he expects and the skipper has been pleased with preseason practice.
“Preparation has been off the charts,” Godwin said. “I couldn’t be more happy, the staff couldn’t be more happy with the way our guys have prepared consistently. Our older guys have done a tremendous job just focusing on being consistent every single day. It’s been great. We could not have prepared better than we have so far.”
ECU went 38-23-1 last season and 15-8-1 in the AAC. The Pirates were 20-10-1 at home, 15-10 on the road and 3-3 on neutral fields.
Godwin has cited a goal of more consistency.
“We’ve done that already as far as our preparation,” Godwin said. “I think the more consistent you can be with your preparation, that’s going to translate over to the field as far as consistent play. We have done our part up to this point.”
The Pirates are picked to win the AAC, which is just the tip of the iceberg as far as preseason hype. The ECU coach was asked about managing expectations.
“We have a circle,” Godwin said. “Inside the circle is controllables. Outside the circle is stuff we can’t control. If you focus on that outside noise, then you just set yourself up for failure. We need to focus on what we can control. The rest, let the media talk about and let the fans talk about it. . . . They don’t pass out trophies in the preseason. . . . You can be on a preseason All-America watch list or a stopper list or whatever. If you don’t play well, you’re not going to be on anything.
“I always tell our guys, the better you play as a team, the more recognition you’ll get individually if your team plays well.”
The Pirates will be sporting a new look as they take aim on Omaha.
“Last year, we had Nike,” Godwin said. “This year, we’ll have Adidas. Head to toe, we’ll be Adidas. We’ll have a black uniform, which will be different. . . . We’ll have a black top, but it’s back-ordered. They’re not going to ship it until March 6. It will be a few weeks away before we can actually wear that top.”
More immediately, the Pirates are set to take on the Rebels at Oxford-University Stadium at Swayze Field. There are seats for 6,100 but capacity is listed as 8,500.
ECU flew out of Raleigh-Durham before transferring for Memphis in Atlanta on Thursday. The Pirates practiced at the season-opening site Thursday night.
ECU finished No. 15 in the final National Collegiate Baseball Writers Association poll in 2016 and Ole Miss was No. 21.
That’s history now. A new season is at hand and the Pirates are looking to make the most of it.