If you’re looking for something positive to take away from East Carolina’s American Athletic Conference baseball tournament debacle, here it is:
It’s better to lay an egg in Clearwater, where there’s an opportunity to reset and get a do-over, than it is for it to happen next week in the only tournament that really matters.
Add to that the fact, as Pirate Radio 1250 pointed out via social media, that ECU didn’t win more than one game in conference tournaments each of the four times it went on to win regional titles.
Considering that this year’s regional will be held at Clark-LeClair Stadium, it should be easy for the Pirates to flush those two losses to Wichita State and remain focused on the goal they’ve had since the first day of practice — to get to the College World Series for the first time in school history. (The NCAA announced the field of 16 regional hosts Sunday evening.)
But while their chances of getting to Omaha are no better or worse now than they were a week ago at this time, there should be at least some concern over ECU’s performance in two of its first three postseason games this season.
Not red flags, mind you. Maybe just a few yellow caution lights.
First and foremost is the bullpen.
After getting off to a shaky start this season, coach Cliff Godwin’s relief corps settled in and became a major component in the Pirates’ record-setting march to the AAC regular season championship. But it was a major disappointment in Clearwater.
In Game 1 against Wichita State, Gavin Williams came into a 1-1 game after six strong innings by starter Alec Burleson and gave up what turned out to be the winning run. Although Williams was charged with the run, it was actually Evan Voliva that surrendered the decisive RBI single to the first hitter he faced.
Ryder Giles was then called on to pitch the ninth and he was promptly touched up for four runs on three hits, one of them a homer, to end any thoughts of a Pirates comeback.
Even on Wednesday, following a typically brilliant seven inning effort by ace Jake Agnos, things got a little dicey against Houston when Cam Colmore gave up a run and loaded up the bases in the eighth before Zach Barnes cleaned up the miss by inducing a line drive double play.
Friday’s 12-5 elimination loss to Wichita State was decided by the time Jake Kuchmaner left the mound from his worst start of the season. But that doesn’t make the struggles experienced by Barnes and Evan Odom later in the game any less worrisome.
The question is, was this just collectively a bad week or is the bullpen starting to show signs of wearing down at the end of a long, grueling season?
And what about Kuchmaner?
If fatigue is an issue, then perhaps the early trip home from the conference tournament and the extra few days of rest it provided could be advantageous in the long run.
It could also play a role in the way Godwin sets his rotation for the upcoming regional.
The decision to go with Burleson rather than his regular weekend starters in Game 1 would have turned out well had the offense scored some runs or the bullpen not imploded. Burleson could legitimately be an option in Game 1 of the regional as well, but he may be more valuable in relief — especially because of his ability to eat up multiple innings more than once during the weekend.
As much as pitching will determine how things go for the Pirates in the NCAA tournament, how far they advance could also hinge on the health of Lane Hoover’s left shoulder.
The freshman outfielder has been sidelined since hurting himself while making a catch in a win against Campbell on May 14. Hitting in the No. 2 spot, he’s been an effective table-setter between leadoff man Bryant Packard and power man Spencer Brickhouse — hitting .341 with a .463 slugging percentage and seven stolen bases.
Though his presence at the top of the batting order wasn’t glaringly missed in Clearwater, the move of Turner Brown to replace him there — with first Chandler Jenkins, then Connor Norby filling in for Lloyd — significantly weakened the bottom.
Regardless of who’s in the lineup or on the mound, the Pirates will now have a chance to hit the reset button and get a fresh start to their postseason.
“Thank God there’s more baseball to be played,” Godwin said after the second Wichita State game. “I’d hate for the season to end like that.”
One thing ECU won’t be able to do is earn a top eight seed that would have guaranteed them home field advantage through he Super Regionals. That went out the window with those two losses last week.
But as the Pirates so painfully learned a year ago, playing at home is no guarantee of advancing. The only thing that matters from here on out is sticking to your strengths, playing good baseball and doing whatever it takes to win.
Just as they have all season, save for those three forgettable days in Clearwater.