In 2019, the East Carolina baseball team went 47-18 and won the Greenville Regional of the NCAA Tournament. The Pirates went 2-1 in a series at Wichita State that season but lost twice to the Shockers in the American Athletic Conference tournament.
Within the context of that 2-3 record against Wichita State two years ago, last weekend’s 2-2 road split against the Shockers might look a little better.
ECU coach Cliff Godwin shared some thoughts Tuesday on this year’s series at Wichita State, the first American Athletic Conference road competition for the Pirates in 2021.
ECU won game one 10-0 in seven innings before splitting the 4-game set.
“Last Thursday started exams, so our guys are in the middle of exams,” Godwin said. “That’s always a little bit of a tricky situation, more so this year. You’d think it would be less tricky, being online, but some of our guys had to turn in stuff on Saturday and Sunday. Since classes were online this year instead of — in-person exams you don’t have anything to do on Saturday or Sunday.
“We played really well, the first game. Gavin (Williams) pitched great and we played really good baseball. We had a longer break in between game two, which I actually thought would help us and it didn’t. We went back to the hotel, which was three minutes away. I showered. I think a couple of the players showered. They got food, of course, and hydrated.”
The Pirates fell, 12-2, in seven innings in the second game.
“Kuch (Jake Kuchmaner) pitched really good,” Godwin said. “Position player-wise, we weren’t ready to play, which is my fault, even though I told them we haven’t played great in game twos even though we’ve won some. It fell on deaf ears, which is my fault because I’m the leader. We obviously got beat. The one thing, walking away from Wichita State, that you could see, even if you weren’t there and you couldn’t watch it — not real sure why the games weren’t streamed but they weren’t — once their offensive guys started going like they did in game two, you couldn’t stop them.”
“Game three, Smitty (Tyler Smith) pitched great,” Godwin said. “Game four, we just dug ourself too big of a hole. Like I said, the offense got rolling. The only guy that could squelch it was Cam Colmore. What he did on Sunday was unbelievable. Four innings, scoreless. I think it went 6-1-2-2 and then Cam went 0-0-0-0. We knew they had their best arms in the bullpen, which we did. We just had to go to our bullpen too early. We had to go to it in the first inning.
“We just fell a little bit short. We had the tying runs to the plate in the eighth and the ninth. We weren’t able to catch them, but I thought our guys played hard on Sunday.
“(Monday) was an off day with optional weights.”
The Pirates lifted weights on Tuesday with no practice.
“Most of our guys are finishing up with exams (Tuesday or Wednesday) so we’ll practice (Wednesday) and Thursday to get ready for Tulane.”
The Green Wave is 13-2 in the AAC and leads the league. The Pirates, at 12-4, are in second place.
The schedule for the 4-game series with Tulane has been adjusted. The teams will play one game today, at noon, rather than a doubleheader. Two games are scheduled for Saturday with the first at 1 p.m. Sunday’s matchup is set for 12:30 p.m.
Left-hander Carson Whisenhunt did not start on Sunday at Wichita State.
“Everybody thinks we’re terrible without him,” Godwin said. “He will throw a bullpen (Tuesday). If he feels good (Tuesday) then he will be available on Sunday.”
Pair of aces to open
Today’s game shapes up as a battle between right-handed pitchers Gavin Williams of East Carolina and Braden Olthoff of Tulane. Williams is 6-0 with a 1.03 earned run average. Olthoff is 5-1 with a 2.56 ERA.
“I told our guys last weekend that it’s playoff baseball,” Godwin said. “We weren’t quite into May when we got to Wichita State but in May, it’s playoff baseball. Every game matters and it’s going to be intense and competitive, no matter who you play.
“You got the first-place team in the conference coming in and the second-place team in the conference and you got two Friday aces. That’s a regional atmosphere. I know that we probably can’t have the place packed but hopefully it will be as many people as they will let through those gates.
“I’m expecting a really good game, each game, but especially in game one.”
ECU is 30-9 overall and ranked No. 13 by Division I baseball. Tulane is 24-14 after a 3-5 start.
“I haven’t looked at them at all,” Godwin said Tuesday. “I worry about our team. I’ll look at some of their pitching as we get closer. They’ve played well. They’re hot. They’ve won 12 out of the last 13. I knew they were going to be good. I was a little bit perplexed about why they hadn’t won as many games early in the season so this doesn’t surprise me.
“For all the people that are out there with the naysaying stuff, hey, we’re in second place. We’re 30-9 with the No. 1 team in the conference coming to Greenville. We have everything in front of us that we have wanted to do. The ball’s in our court and if we play well, good things will happen. If we don’t, we’ll lose and we’ll have to figure out how to get better.”
Jake Agnos got off to a sluggish beginning at the plate this season but was 6-for-13 last weekend (.462) with eight RBIs and his fourth home run.
“Well, you look back and Agnos obviously got off to a slow start,” Godwin said. “With a lot of our guys, we feel like this has happened more so this year and I blame it on COVID, just having a year off.
“Anytime there’s a little bit of slump in the pitching or the hitting, it seems like it’s been amplified this year because they didn’t play last year. Zach and I had a lot of talks. We hit some. Really, he is the player that you’re seeing now like he was in the fall. Arguably, in the fall, he was one of our best hitters. He just started off slow. He’s swinging it like he’s capable of.”
Godwin does not like immediate eligibility for transfers.
“I think it’s bad for athletics,” Godwin said. “I think it’s bad for society because any time somebody is not necessarily happy with their playing time, their coaching — coach yelled at me in practice, it gives them a free opportunity to jump ship. I don’t worry about it with our guys. I’m not saying somebody won’t transfer out of our program. You just want to have close enough relationships where they have a bad day and it’s not the end of the world.
“I think we’re just giving them an easy way out. It’s not really developing them for life in my opinion. That’s not the way I was raised. It’s not the way my coaches raised me. So, yeah, is there a specific situation where a kid really needs to transfer because there’s a family (matter)? Yeah, there is. That’s why they have waivers, but to make it blanket — I just don’t agree with it.”
Funding for baseball
Godwin would like to see more scholarships for baseball than the NCAA currently allows.
“I think our sport is under-supported,” Godwin said. “We have 35 players on any given year. This year, 40, because of COVID and you get 11.7 scholarships? The kids that are on our team, 95 percent of them are paying more than what East Carolina is paying to go to East Carolina. What I mean by that is, most of our guys are on less than 50 percent. Their families are paying more financially than what East Carolina is and I don’t think that’s fair.
“Every other sport is supported better than us in my opinion. I don’t have all the facts in front of me so … but we are very under-funded and it’s because we’re a male sport. There’s always the Title IX issues. That’s the way it’s always been. The third assistant not being paid when you have 35 players? What are we talking about?
“We talk about student-athlete welfare all the time but when it comes to financially (supporting the program) it doesn’t seem that we want to really do it.”
Freshman Ryley Johnson has brought his average up to .244 with three homers and 11 RBis in 45 at-bats.
“Ryley has done a tremendous job,” Godwin said. “He started out slow, like Agnos did, but he was one of our best hitters in the fall and in the preseason. Sometimes, young guys press. I think he pressed early, but he has played great. Of course, he gets in about every game, even when he doesn’t start. He’ll continue to get opportunities. … Anything can happen. Somebody could go down with a hamstring or a quad or something and then, all of a sudden, he’s playing every day.”
Weekend starter Jake Kuchmaner is 2-2 this season with a 5.36 ERA. In ECU’s last full season in 2019, he was 7-2 with a 2.99 ERA. The crafty left-hander, who has the only perfect game in program history, was 4-0 last season with a 0.60 ERA before the COVID shutdown.
“It’s crazy,” Godwin said. “We’ve had a lot of conversations. It’s not really crazy, but crazy for some people probably. It’s not like Kuch, all of a sudden, started pitching bad. He started having some different thoughts in his head where maybe it was (velocity), maybe it was ‘is my change-up good?’
“It’s a slippery slope. All of a sudden your thoughts do down the wrong path and then you’re giving up a couple of bloop hits. That’s why the game of baseball is so hard, it’s a game of inches.”
Kuchmaner started the second game at Wichita State and went five innings. He allowed four hits, three runs (all earned) and walked one while striking out five.
“Kuchmaner’s focus last week was focusing on helping others,” Godwin said. “I said, ‘Hey, you can do your weekly routine in your sleep. You don’t need to worry about that. You don’t need to refine it.’
“He works as hard as any player that’s ever been in our program. He’s very consistent and diligent. He’s a super smart young man and I said, ‘just worry about helping the young guys. Help out (Danny) Beal, help our (Josh) Grosz, help out (Landon) Ginn. If you do that, it will take your mind off all the other stuff that maybe you were thinking about previously that doesn’t matter.’
“Evan Krusczynski actually talked to him last week as well, just the way Kruz has been able to maneuver through professional baseball. He started out good, Kruz did, in the short season and then he had a couple of bad seasons because he was worried about the wrong things. COVID helped him get back on the right track. He was at big league spring training and pitched great. He’s at the alternate site now. It’s really impressive to me to have those older guys. They’re so invested in what’s going on here, some of our guys that were in the first couple of years of the program and now they’re giving back to guys on the team. It’s pretty special.”
Garrett Saylor and Carter Spivey have struggled in spot starts but have been more effective in relief roles.
“For whatever reason, they just haven’t pitched as well as they do out of the bullpen,” Godwin said. “You give opportunities to guys that have worked hard. Both of those players work hard. It didn’t work out the past two weekends when we started those guys but that’s fine. If Carson continues to feel good then, obviously, Carson will go back into a starting role at some point in time. I don’t know if it will be this weekend.
“You continue to give guys opportunities. Another positive from this weekend. All three freshmen were out there this weekend. Danny Beal was out there twice. Landon Ginn, once. Grosz went multiple innings. The more we can continue to develop those guys, those guys are going to help us down the stretch run as well.
“The thing I’ve harped on with our guys is if you have the wrong thoughts going in there but you tell everybody that you’re O.K., that’s like an alcoholic saying, ‘Hey, I’m not an alcoholic.’ Well, you’ve got to admit that there’s something going on in your head so we can help you, whether it be a teammate or a coach.
“Both those guys are critical for us down the stretch. They’ll both get the ball at different times. I don’t know if it will be in a starting role or not, but they’re critical for our bullpen for sure down the stretch run.”