The East Carolina baseball team clinched the American Athletic Conference regular season championship and won its seventh straight league series this weekend by taking two of three at Wichita State.
But those might not be the most significant things to happen to the Pirates over the past six days. Far more meaningful was Wednesday’s 9-5 victory against North Carolina in Chapel Hill.
This was no ordinary midweek nonconference game. And not just because by winning it, coach Cliff Godwin’s team and the school it represents earned some always welcomed bragging rights on a high-profile in-state rival.
For one thing, it showed that the Pirates were paying attention to Godwin when he challenged them to learn a lesson from that disappointing sweep at the hands of UCLA four weeks ago.
More importantly, it solidified ECU’s claim to one of the top eight seeds in the upcoming NCAA tournament — a designation that would send the road to Omaha directly though Greenville.
While there’s still work to be done and games left to be played before the bids are handed out and the seeds decided, the Pirates’ resume will look a lot more impressive when all is said and done now that it has another road win against a top 16 opponent on it.
Especially in what is generally considered a down year for the American.
“It obviously can help solidify those top spots going into the last couple of weekends of conference play,” said sophomore left-hander Alec Burleson, who got the win at UNC by pitching four strong innings while driving in two runs at the plate. “It’s awesome just to get a win on the road and help out the RPI.”
That RPI was already high at No. 3 nationally behind only UCLA and Vanderbilt heading into the Wichita State series.
But with a ranking of only No. 9 in virtually all of the human polls, the Pirates are anything but a lock for one of those coveted national seeds and the home field advantage through the Super Regionals that comes with them.
In fact, they’re likely to need some help in the form of a stumble from one of the three SEC teams ranked directly ahead of them — Arkansas, Mississippi State and Georgia — for them to accomplish their goal.
And that’s assuming they take care of their own business by beating Campbell on Tuesday, winning their final AAC series of the regular season against Memphis and putting together a championship effort in the upcoming conference tournament.
Judging from their performances in this week, especially in Chapel Hill, they look to be locked in on the here and now, and not distracted by the carrot dangling so tantalizingly in front of them.
For that, they can at least partially thank the humbling experience they endured on their recent trip to Southern California.
“It’s going to make us better,” Godwin said after the third close loss to the Bruins on April 13. “We’re going to learn from it.”
Clearly they did. And it showed at UNC.
Instead of taking their foot off the accelerator after jumping out to an early lead as they did in two of the three games at UCLA — a situation that left the door open for the Bruins to rally for wins in their final at bat both times — the Pirates didn’t sit back against the Tar Heels.
They followed up their six-run first inning explosion, highlighted by a Jake Washer grand slam, by scoring again in the second and third. Then after UNC cut the lead to 8-3 in the fifth, ECU took the steam out of UNC’s comeback bid by tacking on another run in the seventh.
“To continue to add on was huge,” Godwin said.
It was a good sign moving forward, one that didn’t go unnoticed by the large contingent of fans that greeted the team’s bus upon its return to Clark-LeClair Stadium on Sunday night.
As fired up as Pirate Nation is starting to get about the possibilities that are growing more realistic with each passing game, Godwin and his players aren’t ready to getting caught up in their potential postseason implications.
At least not yet.
“We’ve put together a lot of good work,” Godwin said on the field after the UNC game. “If we hadn’t played well up to this point, this game wouldn’t matter. So I just want to continue getting better and focus on getting one percent better tomorrow.”
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