East Carolina starts the 2020 baseball season one week from today, weather permitting, at Clark-LeClair Stadium with a 4 p.m. first pitch against William & Mary. It will be Valentine’s Day, appropriate for the legion of Pirate fans who love to follow ECU’s exploits on the diamond.
The Pirates are coming off a 47-18 season that included a record 20-4 mark in the American Athletic Conference.
Significant personnel losses from the 2019 team, which had its season ended in a Super Regional at Louisville, included Dusty Baker, Turner Brown, Brady Lloyd, Sam Lanier, Zach Barnes, Evan Voliva, Spencer Brickhouse, Bryant Packard, Jake Agnos and Jake Washer.
Coach Cliff Godwin has reloaded the roster with 18 new players in addition to 18 returners.
There was also some shuffling on the staff after pitching coach Dan Roszel went to Kentucky. Jason Dietrich was brought in to direct the mound corps after working most recently at Oregon. Jeff Palumbo was promoted to associate head coach.
Just who will deliver the first pitch next Friday is yet to be determined. Right-hander Gavin Williams was a prime candidate until fracturing a finger. Left-hander Alec Burleson, a preseason All-American, is a possibility, as is right-hander Tyrler Smith. Southpaw Jake Kuchmaner will likely be on a pitch count as he works through some shoulder soreness.
There is an abundance of new and experienced arms that will see action out of the bullpen and as midweek starters.
Godwin provided a rundown on the position players.
Last season, Washer hit .301 with a team high 17 home runs and 55 RBis while anchoring the ECU defense from behind the plate. Seth Cadell hit .241 with four homers and 13 RBIs as he saw action in 37 games with 20 starts.
Godwin played catcher for the Pirates, making Academic All-American, and he talked about the group at his old position.
“Seth Caddell, Ben Newton, Matt James, those are the three guys that you’ll see back there,” Godwin said. “Seth has done a much better job of just being consistent back there, but Ben’s played well. Matt’s played well.”
Newton and James are junior college transfers.
Ryder Giles is expected to move from third to shortstop after hitting .242 with 26 RBIs last year as a freshman. Giles also made 20 pitching appearances in 2019 with a 3.75 earned run average.
Godwin has a lot of possibilities at third and across the infield.
“You have Zach Agnos, who’s done an unbelievable job,” Godwin said. “He pitches as well. You have Nick Barber. You have Alec Makarewicz. Barber can play every position on the field, so you might see him at third, short, second, first, anywhere in the outfield and even possibly catching.
“Alec Makarewicz, a freshman from Orlando, he will see time there. (Thomas) Francisco and Skyler Brooks can also play over there.”
Agnos is Jake’s younger brother.
Brown is gone at short after hitting .294 with 33 RBIs as a senior.
“You have Ryder Giles,” Godwin said. “Zach Agnos can play short. Nick Barber can play short.”
Lloyd left a void at second after hitting .248 with 23 RBIs.
“Connor Norby,” Godwin said of potential replacements. “Norbs has done a really good job. Also, Zach Agnos, A-Mak and Nick Barber can play there as well.”
Brickhouse was a prototypical first baseman before taking advantage of his pro draft opportunity. He hit .335 with 14 round trippers and 56 RBIs as a junior.
One of the challenges for the Pirates is figuring out how to best utilize the versatile talents of Burleson. He can play first or the outfield in addition to pitching.
“Maybe Burley, Francisco, Skyler Brooks, Carson Whisenhunt,” Godwin said in summary of the first base candidates.
Gone from the outfield are Packard and Baker. Packard battled through injuries to hit .358 with seven homers and 40 RBs. Baker hit ,250 and drove in 11 runs.
“In right field, Christian Smallwood, who’s battling a finger injury, but he’s done a really good job,” Godwin said. “Christian Jayne can play all three spots. Bryson (Worrell) will most likely start in center. He can play all three spots. You have Trevor Losito, who can play probably a corner outfield and Burleson might go out there as well, during some times, either left or right.”
Worrell hit five homers with 19 RBis in just 95 at-bats last season.
ECU has been picked to defend the regular-season AAC title it won in 2019.
“It will be interesting to see what Wichita State does,” Godwin said. “They have a former major league manager (Eric Wedge) as coach. Cincinnati won the conference tournament last year.”
The Shockers were a thorn in the Pirates’ side last season, taking three of five matchups.
“Houston’s good, UConn’s good,” Godwin said. “The Florida teams (South Florida and Central Florida) always have talent. It’s one of the best baseball conferences in the country.
“They don’t give out any awards in the preseason.”
ECU will have three scrimmages before its season opener. The Pirates also will do some fine tuning.
“Being fundamentally sound in all of our bunt defenses, pickoffs, first and third defenses,” Godwin said. “Knowing all of our signs. Just being prepared for any situation that any team could throw at us.”
Dietrich knew Coach Altobelli
Dietrich knew Orange Coast College baseball coach John Altobelli, who was killed in the helicopter crash with former Los Angeles Lakers star Kobe Bryant.
“It’s been a tough time for him,” Godwin said.
Dietrich plans to attend a memorial service on Sunday at Angel Stadium of Anaheim.
Over $70,000 was raised at East Carolina’s preseason banquet.
The money goes into the baseball program.
Godwin had contingency plans for practice inside if necessary on Thursday. Funds generated by the program have helped in the construction of indoor hitting and pitching facilities.
Success is a process in terms of team goals. The Pirates go into the season ranked as high as No. 20.
“Get one percent better every day and to play a very consistent brand of baseball with a ton of intent and energy,” Godwin said in regard to goals. “And ignore noise from fans, media, parents, whoever it is and just stay on us. If we put together a consistent body of work, you’ll look up at the end of the year and we’ll put ourselves in a position to host regionals, host Super Regionals and win a national championship.”