It’s difficult and in most cases, inadvisable, to make any rash judgments about a team in the second week of a long season.
So let’s not read too much into the East Carolina baseball team’s two recent losses, especially the one last Wednesday at Campbell — a team that won its conference and played in the NCAA tournament a year ago.
At the same time, there are least a couple of things that, while still too early to be a concern, bear watching as the nonconference schedule continues with two midweek games leading into the always competitive LeClair Classic next Friday, Saturday and Sunday.
The first is the health of arguably the Pirates’ two best players.
Juniors Bryant Packard and Spencer Brickhouse were both off to hot starts, with each contributing a home run and multiple RBIs in ECU’s season opening sweep of Radford. But Packard missed the final game against the Highlanders with what is being reported as a bruised palm and has been held out of action “as a precautionary measure.”
Then Wednesday, Brickhouse left the game after “tweaking something” during his second at bat at Campbell and hasn’t played since.
It’s a malady suffered on the same field at around the same time of the year as the thumb problem that derailed Dwanya Williams-Sutton’s season in 2017 and started an injury epidemic that led to the Pirates not making an NCAA regional.
This is not to say that Brickhouse’s situation will be one that lingers for an extended period of time. But reading between the lines of coach Cliff Godwin’s comment when asked about his injured stars after Saturday’s doubleheader sweep of Monmouth, there’s at least reason to worry.
“(Packard) is not ready to swing a bat yet,” he said. “I’m not a doctor but I would say Brickhouse will be ready after Packard if I have to guess.”
Godwin has the luxury of being patient in both cases, given the depth the Pirates showed in this weekend’s series against Monmouth.
Sophomore Alec Burleson, who has also been effective in the mound, leads the team with 15 hits and a batting average of nearly .600. Freshman Thomas Francisco, taking advantage of at bats that would normally have gone to Packard, went 5 for 8 with five RBIs and two homers in three games this weekend while fellow rookie Ryder Giles was 8 for 11 with three RBIs.
But as well as the youngsters have filled in and as much as their contributions will strengthen the team moving forward, the Pirates will have a hard time accomplishing the lofty goals they’ve set for themselves without Packard and Brickhouse in the middle of their batting order.
How much that batting order will have to produce on a consistent basis is the second important aspect to watch as the season progresses.
The other is the bullpen.
Because while ECU’s starters have looked good so far — especially the aforementioned Burleson and junior Jake Agnos — most of those that have followed them to the mound have not exactly distinguished themselves.
Balky relief pitching was a major contributing a factor to both of the Pirates’ losses thus far.
Against Campbell, Trey Benton, Cam Colmore, Giles and Zach Barnes combined to give up six runs (although only one was earned) on six hits, two walks and a hit batter in 4⅓ innings of a 7-6 setback. That includes a clean inning by redshirt senior Evan Voliva.
Sunday against Monmouth, ECU was up 5-1 and sailing along behind Tyler Smith. The junior starter ran out of gas in the seventh, but still left with the lead that Benton, Voliva and Sam Lanier couldn’t hold.
The trio was charged with five runs (all earned) on six hits with three walks and a homer in three innings on the way to an 8-5 loss. The bullen also had a rocky outing in Game 2 of the Radford series, but was bailed out by an offense that erupted for 15 runs.
The good news is that it’s still very early in the season and pitching issues can often be worked out with the arrival of warmer weather, players getting into a rhythm and a little tweaking on the part of the coaching staff.
It’s not something to be concerned about two weeks into a long baseball season. But like the injury situation, it’s something worth keeping an eye on.