College baseball is a long season and a lot can — and probably will — happen between now and tournament time in mid-May.
But it’s always good to get off to a fast start. And coach Cliff Godwin couldn’t have dialed up a better one than the result his team produced this weekend.
It wasn’t just that East Carolina swept a season-opening three-game series against a good William & Mary team, which it did — winning by scores of 2-1, 11-3 and 7-4. The most encouraging aspect of the Pirates’ performance over the past three days is the way they got the job done.
On Friday, they showed they still possess the same kind of grit and persistence that helped them survive through the loser’s bracket last spring on the way to an NCAA regional championship.
They did it by scoring the tying run late, then relying on a bullpen that wasn’t always reliable a year go to hold down the fort before winning the game with a run in the bottom of the 11th.
On Saturday, ECU busted out the big bats, scoring eight of its 11 runs in the fourth and fifth innings, and building a comfortable enough cushion that Godwin was able to get a look at just about everyone on his roster under game conditions.
In all, 15 position players got into the game, 13 of which got at least one at bat before showing off the depth of his pitching staff, which combined to strike out 17 hitters in Sunday’s series finale.
Individually, there were several performances of note. They include:
◼ Alec Burleson and Thomas Francisco: Every team wants its best players to be its best players and for the first weekend of the season, that’s what the Pirates got.
Burleson, a consensus preseason All-American and arguably the best two-way player in the country, got his junior season off to a flying start by allowing only one run while striking out six in seven strong innings of Friday’s opener. He then started the winning rally at the plate by singling to start the 11th and scoring the deciding run.
He finished the series batting .300 (3 for 10) with an RBI and two walks.
Francisco, who is being counted on to build off a successful freshman season and fill at least some of the offensive void lost with the departure of Spencer Brickhouse, was even better with his bat. He had five hits and three walks in 11 plate appearances, hitting a hefty .625 with four RBIs.
◼ Seth Caddell: A backup for his first two college seasons, Caddell has some big shoes to fill in replacing regional MVP Jake Washer. But he showed that he’s equipped to handle the important role both behind the plate and at the plate.
The junior catcher hit .333 for the weekend, going 4 for 12 with three RBIs, including the game-winner on Friday with a single up the middle in the bottom of the 11th.
◼ Tyler Smith: The senior right-hander was 7-1 last season, the exact same record he posted during his breakout sophomore season. The difference is that his 5.57 ERA was nearly four runs per game higher in 2019 than it was the previous year.
The Pirates need Smith to bounce back to his second-team All-American Athletic Conference form and become an anchor to their weekend rotation. And in his first outing of 2020, he looked like the Smith of old, throwing five shutout innings in Saturday’s win, allowing only one hit while striking out six and walking two.
◼ Connor Norby: Sparingly used during a freshman season in which he batted just .194 in 26 games (two starts), Norby started all three games at second base and produced five hits in 13 at bats, including one of only two homers ECU hit in the series.
The sophomore from Kernersville hit in the No. 2 hole for the first two games before dropping down to the fifth spot, where he bolstered the heart of the batting order by going 2 for 3 with two RBIs and a run scored.
◼ Garrett Saylor: Another sophomore getting a chance to play a bigger role this season, Saylor came into the game with no one out and the go-ahead run on second in the top of the 11th and proceed to strike out the side to give his team a chance to win in the bottom of the inning. He’ll definitely be a pitcher to watch as the bullpen pecking order is determined over the first weeks of the new season.
◼ Zach Agnos: The Agnos name is a familiar one to Pirates fans, since his brother Jake was the team’s ace a year ago before being drafted in the fourth round by the New York Yankees.
The younger Agnos figures to do some pitching, too, and he made a brief appearance this weekend. But it was at the plate where he shined most. Adapting quickly to college pitching, he pounded out five hits in his first 11 at bats with a pair of RBIs while also playing a solid third base.
As good as the Pirates feel about the way their season has started, they won’t have much time to pat themselves on the back.
They’ll learn a lot more about themselves quickly over the next couple weeks thanks to a challenging early schedule that includes a trip to Campbell for a regional rematch on Wednesday and a weekend series against always tough Georgia Southern before facing perennial NCAA tournament teams Ole Miss and Indiana in the LeClair Classic.