The East Carolina baseball team put the first two men on base in the bottom of the second Friday against South Florida’s Shane McClanahan, a left-hander who throws in the mid-90s and is projected as a high first round Major League draft pick come June.
Already trailing by a run and knowing that scoring might be at a premium, the situation called for light-hitting Turner Brown to bunt the runners into scoring position.
Brown squared, all right. But after drawing the Bulls’ infield out of position, he quickly swung away and scorched a line drive up the middle.
It was a perfectly executed play, except for the fact that the ball was hit right at the USF shortstop, who caught the ball, then beat Spencer Brickhouse back to second for what seemed to be a rally-killing double play.
Only it didn’t kill the rally.
Instead of getting demoralized, ECU kept the hits coming — scoring four times in the inning and never slowing down on the way to a 15-2 victory.
“The second inning, I thought, was key,” coach Cliff Godwin said afterward, “just because a lot of teams would have said, ‘Hey, that’s not our inning.’ ”
There’s a good chance that last year’s Pirates might have taken just such an attitude.
Decimated by injuries and beaten down by a prolonged stretch in which everything that could possibly have gone wrong did go wrong, that 2017 squad never lived up to its hype as the preseason American Athletic Conference favorite.
ECU lost its first 10 league games and didn’t recover until it was too late, barely finishing above .500 and out of the NCAA tournament.
As much of a disappointment as that experience might have been, it’s become the fuel that has galvanized this current group of Pirates and helped drive them into the top 10 of the national polls.
“It’s been motivation for everybody that was a part of it,” Godwin said. “Last year was a fluke and we knew it. But it made us better. When you go through what we went through last year, it makes you tougher.”
The first glimpse of that came during an early three-game series in which ECU won two of three from in-state rival North Carolina, punctuated by a 12-0 rout of the Tar Heels in Chapel Hill. The Pirates then bounced back from opening game losses to win each of its first two AAC series’ against league heavyweights Central Florida and Wichita State.
The following week, they played five games in a five-day stretch with a cross-country trip to Washington sandwiched in between, and never missed a beat while going 4-1.
“This team is just special,” said junior outfielder Dwanya Williams-Sutton, who is back in the lineup after missing 15 games with a wrist injury. “We just love the game and try to have fun. We have a bunch of confidence.”
That confidence, however, is only part of the reason why the Pirates have bounced back so strong this year. There’s also an abundance of talent, centered around a group of sophomores that have all begun coming into their own at the same time.
Leadoff man Bryant Packard has hit seven homers and driven in 17 runs during his current 13-game hitting streak. Classmates Brickhouse and Jake Washer have also been major cogs in a batting order that’s averaging better than six runs per game while Tyler Smith, Trey Benton and Jake Agnos anchor a deep pitching staff that ranks 17th nationally in ERA.
And they aren’t just leading on the stat sheet.
Along with upperclassmen such as unbeaten junior starter Chris Holba and juniors Brown, Williams-Sutton and Brady Lloyd, and JUCO addition Connor Linton, they’ve come together to create the kind of looseness and chemistry last year’s team never seemed to find.
“Last year we had captains, but this year I think all 35 guys are captains because everybody is up in that leadership role and everybody has bought in,” Packard said.
“We go out there every day and just compete at the plate, our pitchers aren’t scared to dominate and our defense has been phenomenal,” Williams-Sutton added. “We’ve become very resilient. Hopefully that will take us a long way this year.”
That resilience is about to be put to the test again. Because even after that pivotal second inning rally and the lopsided victory over USF it helped produce, ECU went on to lose the next two games to drop its first weekend series of the season.
The task doesn’t get any easier with a Tuesday road date against a ranked Duke team coming off a two-game sweep at Florida State, followed by a conference series at Memphis and another trip into ACC territory at second-ranked N.C. State.
This upcoming stretch will likely be pivotal when it comes to hosting an NCAA regional and perhaps even a super regional beyond that. Although the Pirates have put themselves in an advantageous position at 26-9 (5-4 AAC), there’s still plenty of work left before the job is complete.
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