NASHVILLE — There will be 63 moments in the NCAA Tournament such as the one East Carolina experienced with a 4-1 loss to Vanderbilt on Saturday.
It is that time when aspirations must be reconciled with the reality that a season is over. For ECU, the pain is compounded by the fact that the Pirates are yet to reach the College World Series in 30 tries. ECU was playing in its sixth Super Regional.
Commodores right-hander Jack Leiter (10-3) helped send ECU to another dead end on the road to Omaha. The Pirates (44-17) managed just two hits against Leiter, a leadoff single by Connor Norby in the first and a home run to right by freshman Josh Moylan in the seventh.
Lane Hoover walked twice. He was caught stealing in the fifth as ECU was unable to generate any offensive continuity.
Leiter, the son of former major league pitcher Al Leiter, walked three and struck out 10 in seven innings. Nick Maldonado retired the last six batters in order for his eighth save.
ECU was in a must-win situation after a 2-0 loss on Friday in the first game of the best-of-three to the Commodores (45-15), who won the College World Series the last time it was played in 2019.
“They were the better team,” said Pirates coach Cliff Godwin. “Our guys poured everything they had on the field and it wasn’t enough.”
ECU was designated the home team Saturday, according to NCAA regulations.
Left-hander Carson Whisenhunt kept Vandy scoreless for four innings. He walked two with one out in the fifth and Godwin called on Matt Bridges to relieve. A double steal as Enrique Bradfield Jr. struck out put runners at second and third. Carter Young singled to right center for a 2-0 lead.
The Commodores added two runs in the top of the ninth after a leadoff walk to C.J. Rodriguez. He went to second on Parker Noland’s sacrifice bunt. ECU senior right-hander Cam Colmore made a nice stop on a grounder by Javier Vaz for out two. Jayson Gonzalez had an infield hit before a run-scoring double by Bradfield gave the Commodores a 3-1 lead.
Young was intentionally walked to load the bases before a walk to Dominic Keegan on a 3-1 pitch that appeared to be in the zone forced Gonzalez home.
“They got four 2-out RBIs and we got one home run,” Godwin said. “That was the difference in the game.”
Vandy was seeded No. 4 in the NCAA Tournament and the Pirates were No. 13. The top eight seeds host Super Regionals.
ECU was 29-4 at home this season, 12-10 on the road and 3-3 at neutral sites.
“It’s more difficult to win on the road,” Godwin said. “I always envisioned we’d do it (win a Super Regional) at Clark-LeClair for our fans.”
The Pirates wanted to break through this season and worked to make it happen, but only one team in the field of 64 will celebrate after their last game in the NCAA Tournament. Vandy has a chance to do that again.
Senior right-hander Tyler Smith probably would have pitched if ECU had been able to force a third game at Hawkins Field.
“The past five years have been the best five years of my life,” Smith said in a voice strained with emotion. “I’d do it all over again if I could. I love this place (ECU) so much.”
The disappointment of the Super Regional will dissipate for the American Athletic Conference regular-season champions. The program will move forward with recruiting and player development. The seniors are poised for success.
“We’re like millimeters away,” Godwin said. “This team will not be measured by not going to the College World Series. A 3.69 team GPA (grade point average), … what this team has done in the community. … They gave us everything. Life’s not fair, but the percentages say if you keep knocking, you’ll knock the door down sometime.”