If everything had gone according to expectations, East Carolina would be getting ready to host an NCAA regional tonight.
The Pirates were the preseason favorites in the American Athletic Conference and were ranked as high as sixth nationally at the outset of the 2017 season.
The expectations became a factor to overcome but ECU coach Cliff Godwin said the projections were deserved.
“I thought they were justified,” Godwin said. “I mean we had nine seniors coming back, our Friday night starter [Even Kruczynski] coming back, pretty much our entire lineup coming back with our recruiting class — I thought they were justified. I just thought nobody can go through the injuries we had and have the season they were expected to.
“I’m not saying that we shouldn’t have made a regional. We should have still made a regional but go around the field and talk to me about injuries. Everybody except Travis [Watkins] and Eric Tyler missed time with injuries. Bryce Harman missed time. Charlie Yorgen missed time. Turner Brown missed time. Dwanya [Williams-Sutton] missed time. [Bryant] Packard missed time. Kruczynski missed time. [Chris] Holba missed time. Nobody can survive that and have the season they want.”
The Pirates went 32-28 with a late surge that came within a win of an automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament.
Godwin started seeing a revival in the team starting with a 3-0 win at Connecticut in the regular-season finale on May 20.
“I thought really the Saturday UConn game that we played and really played a lot of guys that we hadn’t played all year,” Godwin said. “I really thought that was how East Carolina baseball is supposed to be played — just the energy and the toughness. We were facing the Freshman Pitcher of the Year in [Mason] Feole. The at-bats Nick Barber and Brady Lloyd and Dusty Baker and others had were just like the epitome of what we want out of our baseball program and really what has been our baseball program for the better part of three years.
“After the game, I told the guys, ‘This is how we should play.’ The guys played tremendous.”
Stepping up in Clearwater
ECU didn’t pitch Kruczynski in the UConn series in order to rest him for the AAC Tournament in Clearwater, FL. The strategy paid off with a 14-3 win over No. 24 Central Florida in the first league tournament game on May 23.
Rallying for three runs in the bottom of the ninth on May 25, the Pirates stayed in the winners’ bracket by topping No. 25 South Florida, 6-5.
ECU saw UCF again on Saturday and got to the AAC final with a 4-0 win over the Knights as freshman left-hander Jake Agnos tossed seven innings.
“I mean Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday — if we could have done that 90 percent of the time this year we wouldn’t have been in this situation,” Godwin said. “We played great but we just didn’t have enough gas left in the tank to play great again. When you put yourself in that situation, it comes down to one game. We just didn’t have enough and didn’t play well enough to win that last game.”
Houston, perhaps buoyed by the announcement Saturday that it would be a regional host, nickeled and dimed the Pirates for a 6-0 win at Spectrum Field on Sunday. The Cougars never had a big inning, scoring lone runs in the third through eighth innings.
King of the hill
ECU never got to starting southpaw John King , who pitched six and two-thirds innings for the Cougars. King allowed seven hits, walked one and struck out one.
“He actually was coming off an injury,” Godwin said. “At their place, we actually banged him around pretty good. We scored six runs off of him. He had a little more velocity but his ball was probably a little bit straighter. It was a perfect storm. You’ve got a bunch of seniors in the lineup that are anxious, who know this could be the end. We had a good plan going in. We just weren’t able to execute the plan. That’s kind of the epitome of our season as well where we’d have a quality at-bat and then not have one. Put two together and then not one. We just couldn’t stick to our approach. We hit a lot of balls off the end of the bat, which, inevitably, was what we didn’t want to do.”
Early exit for Kruz
Kruczynski went four innings Sunday. He allowed seven hits and two runs, one earned. He struck out five without a walk.
“He was weathering a lot of storms,” Godwin said. “He had pitched out of jams even though he had given up two runs. His pitch count was 80. I just felt like we needed a momentum swing. We weren’t doing it offensively. We went to West [Covington]. He gave up a solo home run but it’s still one run.
“It’s the same thing Kruz had done the past two innings. We were still in the game at that point in time. We were just looking for someone to come in a put up zeroes. We gave up single runs from the third to the eighth inning. When they’re continuing to tack on, it puts even more stress on your offense. It makes it more anxious, no matter what you say to them. We were just looking for a momentum swing.”
Godwin won’t remember Kruczynski for his senior season, which was punctuated by a major injury.
“Kruz wasn’t himself all year after the broken leg,” Godwin said. ” . . . The last image of Evan Kruczynski for me is not the one on Sunday. It’s him pitching in a 1-0 game against Bryant (Charlottesville regional). It’s him standing on the mound in the Super Regional (8-6 win at Texas Tech). Those are the images that I have and I hope everyone has for him. The guy won 20 games for us here. He should go down as one of the best big-game pitchers in the history of ECU baseball.”
Godwin said he has no idea where Kruczynski may be drafted.
“I just want him to get an opportunity, which he will,” Godwin said.
Season in general
The Pirates historically have been an athletic program that found motivation in exceeding expectations. The lofty preseason perch gave ECU a lot of room to fall and very little in the way of positive opportunity to prove anyone wrong. It was something of a unique situation for the Pirates to deal with and it became an obstacle.
“Number one, looking back on it, this team was set up to fail just with all the expectations and all the talk about Omaha,” Godwin said. “If I could go back and change things, I would, and we wouldn’t talk about it. Not that we talk about it a lot. There’s just so much media. There’s so much Twitter. There’s so much social stuff.
“We’re going to stop breaking down [ending huddles] on ‘Omaha’ and the reason we do it today is Coach [Keith] LeClair’s first team did it. You know how much Coach LeClair means to me and the program. That’s why, when I got back here, I did it. This year’s team probably didn’t need to talk about it at all because we were good enough to get there. With all the injuries we had, we still should have made a regional.
“Moving forward, this program understands what Omaha is. The kids are devastated now because they didn’t make a regional. When Kruz and Bryce [Harman] and Chuck (Charlie Yorgen) and all those guys were freshmen and didn’t make a regional, they didn’t even know they were supposed to make one. Now that’s like the standard and the expectation.”
Godwin hopes fans will resist talking about Omaha.
“It just set us up for failure, as far as the, ‘Hey, we should go,’ ” said the ECU skipper. “The kids read all that stuff and no matter how much I can talk to them about it, it’s still there. I need to do a better job of just focusing on us and our behavior. We’ll still have goals and our goal is going to be to go to Omaha, host regionals and host Super Regionals but really to be the best version of our self on a daily basis.
“When we went through the losing streak, it was probably, ‘Oh my, we’re not going to Omaha,’ and that weight on them instead of, ‘OK, we just need to play a little better tomorrow.’ We talked about it but we just couldn’t get everybody to get locked in on it. It was too late by the time we started doing what we needed to do. We just didn’t have enough gas left in the tank.”
A graphic on the telecast of the Houston game noted that ECU has the most NCAA Tournament appearances (28) without going to the College World Series.
“East Carolina has never been to Omaha,” Godwin said. “We’re going to go. If I didn’t think we could go to Omaha and win a national championship, I wouldn’t be the head coach at East Carolina because I’m a winner and that’s what I believe in. But really, for our kids, we just need to focus on how good we can be on a daily basis. How good can our behavior be? How good can we execute? How tough can we be? If we do that, then Omaha is going to take care of itself. Winning a national championship is going to take care of itself.”
Different outlook next season
Looking ahead to 2018, the Pirates won’t have the pressure of great expectations.
“I mean, hey, we won’t be preseason ranked,” Godwin said. “We won’t have anything and everybody will think we’ll be bad. We’ll be just exactly where we want to be.”
Behind the plate
Travis Watkins gave ECU some epic moments, a walk-off homer against defending national champion Virginia in the Charlottesville regional in 2016, among those. He knocked two over the fence in an 8-6 win at Texas Tech last year, the Pirates’ first ever Super Regional win.
Watkins obviously leaves some big spikes to fill, but Godwin is confident in remaining and incoming personnel.
“We’ve got a lot of options,” he said. “We have Jacob Washer, who’s in our program right now.”
The Pirates also have commitments from three in-state catchers — Seth Caddell from Pinecrest High School in Southern Pines, Bryson Worrell from Wilson Hunt and Spencer Smith from Northern Durham.
“It will be a lot of competition,” Godwin said. “I’m looking forward to it. It will be good to have somebody that I get to kind of mold and have to work with more so than I probably have in three years. We’ve kind of taken Travis [Watkins] for granted. Travis has had a great career for us but we’ll be fine behind the plate. The program moves on. Travis will go down as one of the great catchers in ECU history and that’s great but the program moves on and we’ll be fine.”
Seeing less of the Huskies
Another change for 2018 — ECU will not be playing UConn home and away in three-game series at each location.
Wichita State joins the AAC for next year.
“We’ll have one extra team,” Godwin said. “I’m excited about it. We won’t have to play UConn six times.”
Meeting with players
Instead of directing practice for a regional on Tuesday, Godwin was holding meetings with players.
“It’s individual stuff,” Godwin said. “Obviously, this wasn’t how it’s supposed to be but it’s a wake-up call for all of us. At the end of the day, you have to make your own breaks. You have to make sure everybody is on the same page within your organization, which at times this year, everybody wasn’t and that culture is the most important thing. If you have a great culture and you have great leadership, which it starts with me, from top to bottom, then you can win. Talent is not enough.
“This is the perfect example. We had more talent on our team this year than we’ve ever had. Talent’s not enough. It is about toughness and it’s about leadership. It’s about the culture that you have within your organization.”