CLEARWATER, FL — While East Carolina had a day away from play in the American Athletic Conference Tournament on Thursday, the Pirates’ path through the event at BayCare Ballpark came into focus.
Central Florida pounded Memphis, 17-1, in seven innings on ECU’s day off, dropping the Tigers into a rematch from the first round with the Pirates.
If top-seeded ECU (39-14) can subdue Memphis today in a 1 p.m. game, the Pirates would need to beat UCF twice on Saturday to reach the championship game Sunday against the Tulane/South Florida/Wichita State survivor. The Bulls downed the Green Wave, 5-0, on Thursday to force an elimination game between the Shockers and Tulane today in a matchup scheduled to start 47 minutes after the ECU-Memphis game is completed.
The Tigers (18-38), seeded eighth and last for the AAC Tournament, stunned No. 11 ECU, 11-1, in seven innings on Tuesday. After leadoff batter Connor Norby, the league Player of the Year, homered for a 1-0 lead, Memphis got rolling in the third after Pirates starter Tyler Smith issued three walks and hit a batter. The Tigers took a 5-1 lead in the third with the help of a 2-run double from Hunter Goodman.
Memphis added four runs in the fifth on consecutive homers by Alec Trela, Taylor Howell and Evan Bell. The Tigers had four homers on the day as Ian Biblioni had a solo shot in the seventh.
The Pirates bounced back on Wednesday to beat Cincinnati, 13-9, and oust the Bearcats. Matt Bridges put aside his role as a reliever and pitched effectively in his first start. Coach Cliff Godwin used eight pitchers against the Bearcats. Third baseman Jake Agnos finished on the mound and picked up his first save. Norby led off for the Pirates with another home run and the lead grew to 11-1 at one point. Bryson Worrell also homered.
UCF had seven home runs Thursday against Memphis.
The two programs closest to Clearwater, the Knights and Bulls, wait unbeaten in the winners’ bracket with no game on Friday.
UCF (30-28) and USF (26-26) are each two wins away from the tournament championship.
ECU must string together four victories to win the tournament. The Pirates must do that against teams who are playing in hopes of earning the AAC’s automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament. ECU is assured of making the NCAA field and can find motivation in possibly improving their seeding.
Four has been the number for AAC teams on the weekends this season, as in the 4-game conference series format. The Pirates won’t face a drastically different scenario in the tournament bracket.
And ECU’s pitching is plentiful. Weekend starters Gavin Williams and Carson Whisenhunt have yet to go in the league tournament. No Pirate pitcher has thrown more than 50 pitches in a game this week.
ECU won its first AAC Tournament title in 2015 with a 9-1 win over Houston as left-hander Nick Durazo contributed a superb effort out of the bullpen. Current Pirate pitchers Bridges and Cam Colmore were freshmen on that team. Perhaps another veteran, lefty Jake Kuchmaner, will be able to snap out of a puzzling funk and provide some meaningful innings.
ECU may have experienced a letdown after clinching the AAC regular-season championship with a doubleheader sweep at USF on May 20. The longest losing streak of the season ensued — three games.
The Pirates have had winning streaks of five, seven, 11 and five games this season. If the ingredients that produced those results can be duplicated, the tournament championship on Sunday at noon may be a matchup for Pirate Nation to savor.
Fans shouldn’t despair if ECU falls short in the AAC. The two Super Regional appearances in the Godwin era in 2016 and 2019 came after the Pirates came up short in the league tournament.