East Carolina recovered from a 12-3 loss at N.C. State on April 26 for a home sweep of Cincinnati that vaulted the Pirates into sole possession of first place in the American Athletic Conference with an 11-4 league record, a game ahead of Houston and Central Florida, who are each 10-5.
“Just really proud of our guys,” said Pirates coach Cliff Godwin. “We got down in both games on Friday and Saturday. Two different games. One an offensive game, one a pitching and defensive game. Even though we hit the ball Saturday hard, it just was right at people a whole lot. But super proud of just our guys’ resiliency to come from behind. I thought our pitching was great on Saturday and Sunday. We really challenged our pitchers, Coach (Austin) Knight (pitching coach) and myself, of pushing the pace and being the aggressor. …
“Everybody freaks out about a snapshot, just like they did at the beginning of the year about our offense. We didn’t pitch as good as we were capable of pitching for, I guess, about 10 days, and everybody wanted to think our pitching staff is in shambles and that’s all everybody wants to talk about.
“In reality, the bullpen carried us at the beginning of the year so it’s all about perspective and what you’re looking at specifically. Are you looking at the entire year, are you looking at three, four games? Our pitching staff was great on Saturday and Sunday. Offensively, we have been good for pretty consistently of hitting the ball hard and doing what we need to do. Like I said, I really like where our team is. We’ll play our best baseball in this last month, and we’ve played really good baseball down the stretch.”
The loss of projected ace Carson Whisenhunt at the outset of the season and an injury to Jake Kuchmaner on April 15 have been factors ECU has had to overcome.
“Nobody has enough pitching when you lose a guy or two,” Godwin said. “Kuchmaner’s making us thinner, but we’re just having to do it different ways. I think if you try to force into this, ‘Hey, we got to have three starters and we’ve got to do it this way,’ then I know we wouldn’t have won as many games as we’ve had. It’s just been about figuring it out and figuring out what works for this team and that’s why every team is different. That’s why coaches have to be able to bob and weave through different circumstances because you can’t control injuries. You can’t control outside circumstances sometimes that happen to your team and you just have to maneuver through it and our guys have done a really good job of that.”
Godwin was ejected at the close of the fourth inning on Sunday as plate umpire Wes Hamilton ruled a bunt by Jacob Jenkins-Cowart a fair ball. Jake Agnos was tagged out coming home and Jenkins-Cowart was thrown out going to first for an inning-ending double play.
“You can’t review it,” Godwin said. “The reason that him and I disagreed was because I just asked him to get help from the other umpires and he wouldn’t get help from the other umpires.
“Coach (Jeff) Palumbo (first base coach) had a better view than I did, but you know, he was the one. I would say if you got the first base umpire (Mac Stokes) to really be honest, he thought it was foul too because he didn’t even make a play. He didn’t make a call on when they threw the ball to first base. He didn’t even call safe or out.”
Jenkins-Cowart did not run hard to first, apparently thinking the ball was foul.
Kuchmaner continues to progress.
“He’s getting better,” Godwin said. “I think there’s a chance for this weekend. I’m not a hundred percent, but it’s gotten better. He threw a bullpen (Wednesday) and we feel pretty good about it. I would say that the chances are better than 50 percent that he would pitch on Sunday in some capacity.
Bryson Worrell homered from each side of the plate on Sunday in a 6-3 win over the Bearcats.
“Bryson has worked hard for us for five years and this year really came back to just help us win in any capacity,” Godwin said. “He’s been a great leader in our program. And normally this time of the year is when Bryson heats up. Historically that’s where it’s always been. I’m super proud of him. He’s been steady Eddie this year, not riding the highs, not riding the lows, just being consistent.
“Sunday was awesome. Hitting a home run from both sides, another RBI, great play in center field that probably saved the game for us as well. So just played really good baseball and he’s been like that pretty much the entire year.
Coaches say that different teams have different personalities.
“This current team, it took us some time to kind of get our feet underneath us, of understanding who we are and being comfortable in the roles that different guys were playing and finding the best nine,” Godwin said. “Maybe not the most talented nine to be on the field, but the best nine. You look at a guy like (catcher) Ben Newton, not the most talented guy when it comes to throwing the baseball, but he really has done a good job of settling down our pitching staff, communicating with Coach Knight, put together quality at-bats wherever he is in lineup.
“(Cam) Clonch being able to DH against righties and Justin Wilcoxen being a DH against lefties and they’re both lefthanded hitters, and Ryder (Giles) being selfless to go into a predominant pitching role and then he can’t play a position because he just wants to win.
“And then Zach (Agnos) sliding to shortstop. I think it just took time. When you lose guys on the mound that you bank on 80 to 100 innings, you got to maneuver through it and I think this team got handed a lot of adversity early on and they have been toughened by it. As I told them, they’re like an old piece of leather that’s just been beaten and it’s still there because it’s just tough. It’s tough leather.
“That’s why I know we’ll play our best baseball down the stretch because we’ve played more road games or we had before this past weekend than home games. Go back and look at any team in ECU history. That’s never happened before this late in the year.
“It wasn’t necessarily by design. You don’t ever know what your conference schedule is going to look like. And then people back out on you now late in the scheduling process because of budget, COVID, whatever the excuse is, where you scramble just trying to put 56 games together. I just am really proud of this team and with all the criticism they’ve taken by a lot of different avenues of people and they’ve kept their head above water. They’re a strong-knit group and I’m proud of them for that.”
Breakfast of Champions
Lane Hoover and Kuchmaner received major scholarships at the Breakfast of Champions.
“Yeah, last weekend,” Godwin said. “Lane Hoover got the Pat Draughon Postgraduate Scholarship and Jake Kuchmaner got the Walter and Marie Williams Spirit of the East Scholarship. Super proud of guys and the hard work that those guys put in, not just on the baseball field or in the weight room, but in the classroom. Both those guys are in masters programs so they’re doing a really good job on and off the field.”
The spring semester will be another exceptional span for the Pirates academically.
With exams over, ECU players can narrow their focus.
“We won’t really do a whole lot different,” Godwin said. “They just have the stress of academics kind of off their mental capacity so they have more free time. We try to schedule out their time a little bit better because if you let them just have a ton of free time then they won’t probably do anything that’s valuable to themselves other than playing some video games.
“We need to keep them a little structured, some more team meals, a few more team meetings, but they just have more down time that’s the biggest thing.”
The Pirates start a 3-game series at Memphis tonight at 7 p.m.
Godwin talked about important factors in the matchup.
“For us to just do what we’ve been doing,” said the Pirates coach, ”
As Ben Newton says, being eager to play, and Zach Agnos says having a killer instinct and not taking anybody lightly or fearing anybody. Just go out there and do what we have been doing for almost five, six weeks now. Just showing up and being ready to go and executing what we need to execute.”
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