Baseball America ranked East Carolina’s 2017 baseball recruiting class as the 23rd best in the nation, which is quite an accomplishment considering the who’s who of traditional national powers that joined the Pirates among the top 25.
Upon further review, however, maybe that ranking was a bit too low.
That’s because it’s doubtful any program in the country has gotten more from its talented group of newcomers during the first month of the season than coach Cliff Godwin’s team.
It’s a contribution not totally unexpected given the quality of players ECU brought in. But it’s one that, out of necessity, has begun to happen much sooner than expected because of a rash of injuries to key veterans.
Consider that preseason All-American Dwanya Williams-Sutton hasn’t played since injuring his thumb while sliding during the fourth game of the season, or that preseason AAC Pitcher of the Year Evan Kruczynski is out indefinitely with an ankle injury. Meanwhile, projected starting first baseman Bryce Harman has started just one game because of a bad wrist.
Losses of such magnitude could potentially be a killing blow to the high hopes of many programs.
Thanks in large measure to freshmen stepping into the void, the Pirates have rallied from a season-opening sweep by Ole Miss to win 13 of their last 14 games and rise back up to No. 8 in the national polls.
A big reason for that success has been the play of Spencer Brickhouse and Bryant Packard.
Projected to eventually become the heart of ECU’s batting order of the future, the two freshmen sluggers have already begun to realize the vast promise they showed while piling up impressive numbers and multiple all-state selections during their high school careers.
Brickhouse, a 6-foot-4, 226-pound first baseman from Bunn, has been every bit as powerful as advertised by hitting .339 with a team-leading four home runs while filling in for Harman.
Greenville native Packard, the more athletic of the two at 6-3, 205, has made up for the loss of Williams-Sutton in the outfield with a .341 average — the third highest on the team — a pair of triples and a homer.
Junior college transfer T.J. Riles has also been solid, driving in a team-leading 15 runs while playing flawless defense in the outfield.
Freshman outfielder Dusty Baker, a speedy Georgia native, has shown promise in a part-time role by smacking out eight hits and scoring nine runs in his first 18 official at bats.
On the mound, the surprise early ace of the ECU staff has been hard-throwing right-hander Trey Benton, a highly-rated prospect who turned down multiple professional opportunities to pitch for the Pirates.
Armed with a fastball that has been clocked as high as 95 MPH, Benton made an immediate impression by striking out 10 in just five scoreless innings against LaSalle on Feb. 26 to become the first ECU freshman to reach double-figure strikeouts since Davis Kirkpatrick also fanned 10 against High Point three seasons ago.
Benton followed that performance up by striking out eight without allowing a run in seven innings of a victory against Appalachian State. In all, the West Columbus High product has allowed just three earned runs and 10 hits while striking out 24 and walking seven in 18⅔ innings of his four starts.
Freshman lefty Jake Agnos has been just as effective, including an 11-strikeout performance in a five-inning relief appearance against Western Carolina. His most impressive performance, however, came last week when he shut down a high-scoring Charlotte offense over six innings in his first career start.
He has allowed just one run while striking out 15 in his 15 innings to date.
Both of those young arms, along with workhorse reliever Tyler Smith, figure to remain prominent members of the Pirates staff even after Kruczynski is healthy enough to return to the top of the rotation.
Though it’s uncertain what kind of roles Brickhouse and Packard will be asked to play once the proven stars they’re replacing are back at full speed — presumably by the start of the AAC schedule — their performances thus far will make them hard to keep out of the lineup in some capacity.
If nothing else, their bats will help make ECU an even deeper, more talented team than it was already projected to be — one those traditional powers ranked ahead of it in the recruiting class standings won’t want to see come tournament time.