The feelings of dread were palpable inside Clark-LeClair Stadium as what had once been a five-run East Carolina lead against Western Carolina began to melt away in the final game of the Keith LeClair Classic two weekends ago.
It was somewhat understandable, considering the ominous similarities the first weeks of this new season have taken on to the Pirates’ disastrous 2017 campaign, in which lofty expectations on the diamond went up in flames amid a rash of early injuries and inexplicable losses.
Even though ECU was able to hold off the Catamounts, win the game and earn a share of the tournament title, coach Cliff Godwin’s team stood at just 8-4 that Sunday evening — hardly the kind of record worthy of a squad once ranked among the nation’s top 10.
The unexpected slow start, along with injuries to stars Bryant Packard, Spencer Brickhouse and Alec Burleson, had some reaching for the panic button. But Godwin, in an effort to keep the uneasiness from becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy, urged those fans to take a deep breath and keep the faith.
“When stuff goes wrong, cheer for us to help us win the game instead of making the stadium tense when times get tight,” Godwin said in his postgame comments following the Western Carolina win. “When I was at LSU, LSU would win the game because the other team was going to make an error because all the pressure the fans put on them. Here and at Ole Miss, everybody thinks the worst is going to happen. Why is something bad going to happen? East Carolina has got a great baseball program. Why would they not expect us to win? They need to expect us to win and if we don’t and the kids play hard, go home, come back the next day and cheer hard for our guys.
“But be positive with our guys. I’m not saying everybody’s negative. But there’s fans who yell at us like they’re not our players. Like, what are you doing? These kids pour their heart and soul into East Carolina. You should be pulling for them, not pulling against them.”
Godwin’s point, in not so many words, is that the college baseball season is a long three-month grind bound to contain its share of highs and lows. And with nearly two weeks still remaining before the start of American Athletic Conference play, his team, like so many others around the country, is still very much a work in progress.
The Pirates have already begun to show some signs of growth.
Even though they went just 1-1 on their midweek trip into SEC country — losing a 4-1 decision to No. 8 Mississippi State, a College World Series participant last spring, before winning 3-2 at No. 12 Ole Miss — they proved that they’re capable of competing on the same level with the kind of teams they’ll face in an NCAA regional come June.
They then showed an ability to take care of business against teams they’re supposed to beat by sweeping Marist at home this weekend. In the process, they showed some newfound grit in rallying from a run down late in a walkoff extra inning victory on Saturday.
More important, the Pirates’ stars began playing like stars again. Packard and Brickhouse, now fully recovered from what turned out to be minor maladies, put together their best week of the young season by hitting .318 and .368 in the five games, respectively.
A bullpen that was once a major concern suddenly began to distinguish itself, with the contingent of Cam Colmore, Zach Barnes, Burleson, Evan Voliva, Sam Lanier and Ryder Giles allowing just one earned run in a combined 17 innings since Western Carolina.
Those are only two of many positives heading into another challenging week that includes a trip to Atlantic Coast Conference rival Duke on Tuesday and a weekend series against Maryland of the Big Ten, also on the road.
No matter how those games turn out, it would be wise to heed Godwin’s advice by taking a deep breath and keeping the faith.
With a high-profile series at UCLA still to come and a full AAC schedule waiting to be played, there are plenty of opportunities left for ECU to put together an impressive resume, qualify as an NCAA regional host and accomplish all the lofty goals it set for itself when the year began.