Pirate Nation was on a downward spiral.
There was a 2-1 baseball loss at Elon on Saturday, an unexpected jolt for an East Carolina team ranked as high as No. 8 nationally. ECU had dispatched the Phoenix, 15-0, on Friday night but the Pirate bats did an about face the next day as Elon pitchers recorded 14 strikeouts.
Then the news came Monday that All-AAC basketball forward Jayden Gardner had joined an ECU fast break to the transfer portal.
Before the Diamond Bucs took on North Carolina at home on Tuesday night, it was announced that the football program had been placed on a pause due to a COVID outbreak.
There was little to swagger about, even before the Tar Heels jumped out to a 4-0 lead in the top of the first. UNC appeared to be heading in the right direction after being swept at Boshamer Stadium by N.C. State and losing a couple of its own basketball big men to the portal and pro aspirations.
The gloom continued into the eighth inning for the ECU fan base at Clark-LeClair Stadium. Many went home. Many, who were watching remotely, went to bed.
But the worm turned as the game progressed toward its fourth hour. Trailing 10-6 in the eighth, ECU pulled even at 10 on a pair of 2-run homers by Seth Caddell and Alec Makarewicz.
Tyler Smith, the losing pitcher at UNC in an 8-1 setback a week earlier, held the Tar Heels in check in the top of the ninth.
At 10:49 p.m. with the bases loaded and one out, the despair of recent days dissipated as Makarewicz drove a 2-2 pitch to left field for a hit that allowed Thomas Francisco to score the winning run.
It was an inspiring battle, a monumental 11-10 triumph, and a welcomed change in fortune for ECU and supporters.
ECU coach Cliff Godwin, an alumnus and former Pirate catcher, turned to the program’s past for some face time with the ace of the 2017 staff, now in the St. Louis farm system.
“We actually had a Zoom call with Evan Kruczynski at two o’clock,” Godwin said. “I had talked to Kruz on Sunday. It’s amazing, all these older guys who are just following us and watching every pitch.
“The struggles he’s had in pro ball and he actually had a really good spring training, he just talked about the mental game to our guys and related how much it meant to him to play at East Carolina and be a part of a Super Regional.
“I get chills talking about it because I think we should give Kruz a call and give him some credit for the way the guys fought tonight. I’m just really proud. A ton of guys came off the bench and did their job. A really good win. It wasn’t real fun until the end but we found a way to win.”
ECU had an 18-13 lead in hits.
“We’re not bad when we show up and execute a plan,” Godwin said. “We’ll try to do that more often. (Connor) Norby was terrific. Seth Caddell was terrific. Franny (Thomas Francisco) was Franny. A-Mack (Alec Makarewicz) was terrific.”
Norby was 4-for-6 with three RBIs. Worrell was 4-for-5 with a double and two runs. Makarewicz was 3-for-6 with four RBIs. Francisco was 3-for-6 with a double and scored twice. Caddell was 2-for-2 with three RBIs and two walks.
“Those guys that came off the bench, same thing. I thought those guys were terrific as well. A lot of guys had a lot of quality at-bats. We didn’t have a lot of cheap hits. We had a lot of hard contact and that was good to see.”
AAC play starts today
The Pirates (18-5) start play in the American Athletic Conference today at 4 p.m. against Cincinnati (11-10). The league schedule this year calls for four AAC games over a weekend, as opposed to three in the past. There will be no nonconference games during the remainder of the regular season.
ECU was 20-4 in the AAC in 2019. The league schedule was canceled last season.
“It’s four games, but we’re not playing in the middle of the week,” Godwin said. “It’s nothing different than we did in ’19. You’ve just got to take it one game at a time. You can’t look at the longevity of the weekend. You can’t worry about game four when you’re in game one. You’ve just got to focus on winning the first pitch and go from there. If you get tired, we’ll get somebody else in the game.
“Our guys have been trained to go through a tough stretch. They’ve just got to physically and mentally keep preparing themselves like they’ve done to this point.”
In three and one-third innings on March 23, Nik Pry allowed two hits, no runs and struck out five Pirates without a walk to earn the win for UNC. His appearance in Greenville was marked by the game-tying homer to right center by Makarewicz.
“We actually recruited Nik Pry,” Godwin said. “He went to Seth Caddell’s high school (Southern Pines Pinecrest) and he chose Carolina over us. He stuffed us up there, for sure, but he pitched a few times against N.C. State and his stuff wasn’t as sharp as it was in Chapel Hill.
“When I saw him throw his first slider, I just knew. I didn’t know we would get to him like that but I knew it wasn’t the same. In Chapel Hill, he was throwing his slider at 83 to 86 (miles per hour). Tonight, it was more 76 to 80. A-Mack saw one up and was able to get a swing off.”
Godwin was asked about the impact of a 2-run homer by Norby that tied the game at 6 in the fourth inning.
“That seems like two days ago when it was 6-6,” Godwin said in his postgame news conference, via Zoom. “I thought our guys battled back and we had some momentum, but UNC … Deets (ECU pitching coach Jason Dietrich) and I were kind of laughing about it but they hammered our pitching. I don’t know what it is but they have just hammered our pitching.
“Kudos to Josh Grosz, a freshman, coming in and just settling things down and then Smitty (Tyler Smith) coming in. We knew he was going to be available for an inning, maybe two. Smitty came in there and gave us a chance to win in the bottom of the ninth.”
Godwin said his comments were minimal as the Pirates played a night-long game of catch up.
“I talked to them before the game,” Godwin said. “Anytime when you play a rival — and it’s going to be in conference, too — you’ve got to be able to take punches. I didn’t feel like up to this point the past two weeks that when another team threw a punch, that we responded. You’re going to get bloody. It’s just like a UFC match, you’re not having physical contact, but the guy that wins is bloody at the end. You’re going to get bloodied up, you just can’t lay down when you get knocked down.
“Getting down 4-0 — that wasn’t the way you plan it, but our guys stuck to their approach off another freshman pitcher and did a really good job grinding out at-bats. We hit into a double play or it could have been even more runs (for ECU) in that first inning.
“To be honest, I didn’t say a lot to them during the game. We talked about what the pitcher was trying to do to us but I said what I needed to say before the game and I was going to let them see if they could maneuver through it. I thought our guys competed as good as we’ve competed all year.”
Caddell’s homer came off weekend starter Max Alba, who had a brief outing against State on Saturday.
“To be honest, that’s the one guy I didn’t watch,” Godwin said. “Kudos to Austin Knight (volunteer assistant), he watched him and he was able to give us information on him. We knew that lefties had better splits so that’s why I went to the bench and we hit those lefties.
“They went for it and it didn’t work out for them, but It very easily could have worked out for them.”
Reaching out and regrouping
The Pirates made some adjustments after the loss at Elon. The results, of course, were favorable.
“I’m just happy for our guys,” Godwin said. “I was as frustrated as I’ve ever been after Saturday’s game. I actually reached out to Tim Corbin (Vanderbilt coach) because I said, ‘I’ve got to figure out how to not take losing so hard or I’m going to die a lot earlier than I probably should.’
“I talked to the hitters in a very calm way on Sunday about what we wanted to do and what we wanted to work on and kudos to those guys. When we’re mentally locked in, we know we’ve got the talent. We’ve just got to keep the chain connected. I thought the guys did a better job keeping the chain connected, one through nine.”
Norby is hitting .a team-high 443 with eight home runs in the leadoff spot.
“Norby is one of the best,” Godwin said. “(Bryant) Packard had said a couple of weeks ago, ‘Have you ever seen anybody hotter than Connor Norby?’ I said, ‘Yeah, you in ’18, when you were leading off with a home run every time.’ He’s done a really good job and Norbs has just done what he’s supposed to do. When his mind is right, he’s special. He played good defense (Tuesday night) as well. He sets the table for our guys and our guys kind of feed off him when he’s rolling.”
Justice Thompson had two hits, two walks and scored four runs for UNC in Chapel Hill. He had two hits, a walk and scored three runs in Greenville.
“He’s a really good player,” Godwin said. “We battled. Our pitchers kept us close enough where our players felt like they had the ability to come back. Josh Grosz and Tyler Smith, those were two big guys coming out of the bullpen to just keep us right there so we could be within four.”
Grosz struck out Thompson to end the Tar Heels’ half of the seventh and strand a runner. Thompson was on deck when Smith got out of the ninth with a fielder’s choice.
Godwin didn’t want for Tuesday’s outcome to be viewed out of perspective or create unreasonable expectations.
“The only thing it does for us, no offense — North Carolina is a great team — it shows our offense we can come from behind and win games,” Godwin said. “I said this to our team last week and I’m telling everybody in Pirate Nation if we had lost tonight, it wouldn’t have broke our season. If we win tonight, it doesn’t mean we’re going to win the national championship, just like last week.
“But our guys competed tonight and responded to some adversity. You get down four runs a few times and it’s hard. I thought our guys did a really good job of focusing on just winning one pitch. One guy get on and just keeping the chain together.”
Makarewicz talked about his game-winning swing.
“It was just pure adrenalin but I was just happy that we were able to get the bases loaded so that helped relax me a little bit with one out,” he said. “Just went on from there. Just stayed in the moment.
Godwin is ECU’s hitting coach.
“I think Coach Godwin gave us a really good approach today,” Makarewicz said. “All our guys stuck to it. It helped keep the chain together. It was a great day.”
A-Mack was asked which was better, the game-tying homer or the game-winning drive to left.
“They were both pretty equal,” he said. “I was just glad we got the chance to come back and fight.”
Seeing Pry a week before wasn’t a big factor in Makarewicz’s analysis of the homer.
“Not much,” he said. “We just listened to Coach and he gave us all the advice we needed to go out there and attack them.”
Norby is a catalyst for the offense but Godwin’s pregame guest also was influential.
“(Norby) definitely gets us going, but I think today that Zoom meeting kind of helped everybody connect and get us going.”
And the Pirates were undaunted by three four-run deficits.
“Everybody did a great job fighting,” Makarewicz said. “It was great.”