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View from the 'ville
Tuesday, June 2, 2009

By Al Myatt

Super finish sends ECU to super regional

By Al Myatt
All rights reserved.

GREENVILLE — East Carolina's chancellor, Dr. Steve Ballard, has been where the Pirate baseball program wants to go, the College World Series in Omaha, Nebraska. Ballard did it as a shortstop at Arizona.

ECU is two wins in Chapel Hill away from giving the university's CEO a return trip to the Midwest mecca of college baseball after shocking South Carolina with a Devin Harris-driven comeback that produced a 10-9 win in 10 innings over the Gamecocks for the regional championship at Clark-LeClair Stadium on Monday night.

"That's about as good as college sports gets right there," said Ballard after Harris' single to center scored Kyle Roller with the winning run with two out in the bottom of the tenth.

Harris launched a three-run home run in the bottom of the ninth to tie the game at 9-9. The Gamecocks had led 6-0 through four innings.

"Two great teams competed the whole way and never quit," Ballard said. "The ninth inning was worth a lot of prices of admission. We couldn't be prouder of the Pirates. They've gotten better every year. This is an example of it and we look forward to going up to the super regional next week."

ECU (46-18) advances to play North Carolina in a best-of-three series for a berth in the eight-team CWS in Omaha.

"I know one thing," said ECU coach Billy Godwin. "We passed the character test."

East Carolina found itself in a 6-0 hole after the Gamecocks erupted for five runs in the third inning, chasing Pirate pitchers Patrick Somers and Chris Henson in the process. Godwin had said the pitching would be by committee and he used five arms to get the job done.

"They just pitched on heart and adrenaline," said Godwin, who planned to give his team a well-deserved day off on Tuesday — except for a 3 p.m. meeting.

South Carolina coach Ray Tanner credited the performance of Seth Simmons, who worked the longest stretch, 3 1/3 innings. Godwin had praise for the effort and poise of freshman right-hander Mike Wright, who went the last 1 1/3, stranding a go-ahead run at second in the top of the tenth to get his first collegiate win and certainly one of ECU's biggest ever.

South Carolina pushed across a run in the second to take a 1-0 lead when Whit Merrifield's two-strike single to left scored Bobby Haney with two out.

Merrifield's dad, Bill, played shortstop on a state 4-A championship team at Rocky Mount in 1980 and later earned ACC player of the year honors at Wake Forest. ECU had saved a run with a rundown on the third base line before the Gamecocks took the early lead.

Scott Wingo, South Carolina's ninth batter, came into the game hitting just .196 but provided a big blow in the third with a two-run homer to right that completed the five-run frame. Nick Ebert had drawn a one-out walk from Somers and Justin Dalles singled before Godwin went to Heston.

Gamecocks designated hitter Parker Bangs, who played on a 4-A state champion at Scotland County in North Carolina, delivered a run-scoring double for a 2-0 lead. Crisp's sacrifice fly to left scored Dalles to make the score 3-0. Haney's single scored Bangs to extend the lead to 4-0.

Then Wingo unloaded to complete Heston's evening.

Bailey Daniels came in and kept the Gamecocks off the scoreboard in the fourth and fifth.

Meanwhile, the Pirates were experiencing the same difficulties that plagued them in a 12-2 loss to South Carolina on Saturday when ECU stranded 12 runners, including a span in which the bases were left loaded three straight innings.

The Pirates left runners at first and third in the third and had the bases loaded with one out in the fourth before South Carolina turned a 1-2-3 double play.

Asked if he was experiencing baseball deja vu, Godwin said, "No, I had amnesia. I just kept encouraging my players."

ECU senior Ryan Wood ended the offensive futility with a parting gift for The Jungle in his last game in Greenville as he homered to left. The blast came after Trent Whitehead, voted the regional's most outstanding player, had walked with one out in the fifth. That cut the Gamecocks' lead to 6-2 and when Roller singled to right with two down, South Carolina brought right-hander Bangs to the mound.

USC avoided further damage as a fielder's choice retired Roller at second.

Singles by Merrifield and Deangelo Mack sandwiched around a pop-up to short led to another Pirate pitching change with Daniels getting a hand as Simmons came in. On Sunday, Simmons went the last two-thirds of an inning to curtail a rally in an 8-6 ECU win over South Carolina.

Simmons walked Nick Ebert to load the bases. Dalles singled off the fence in left to score Merrifield but the speedy Bradley stopped at third and the Pirates retired Dalles in a rundown after he had run up on Ebert, who scrambled back to second following the relay throw to Dustin Harrington at short.

ECU added two more runs in the sixth after a one-out single by Harris, who went 4-for-5 with five RBI's to enhance his stock as a draft-eligible player. Drew Schieber walked before Jared Avchen doubled to right-center to score Harris. Schieber scored on a sacrifice fly to center by Whitehead to trim USC's lead to 7-4.

Another pair of runs in the seventh brought ECU within 7-6. Stephen Batts singled up the middle to finish Bangs as the Gamecocks went for a left-lefty matchup with Alex Farotta facing Roller. Farotta hit Roller to put runners at first and second. Harrington and Harris had RBI singles to draw the Pirates within a run.

After South Carolina got a two-run homer from Jackie Bradley, Jr., in the eighth for a 9-6 lead, lesser teams might have folded and conceded the regional title to the Gamecocks.

"It was definitely some good insurance but the way East Carolina's guys swing the bat, they're always in the game," Merrifield said.

Brandon Henderson and Harrington walked before Harris turned on a hanging slider from Curtis Johnson (2-1) to send a home run over the left field fence with none out in the bottom of the ninth.

"I've hit home runs," said Harris, who has 14 this season. "But I say that's the biggest I've ever hit. He got up 0-1, so I anticipated he was going to come off-speed. He hung the slider a little bit and I made good contact with it."

Schieber said the Pirates just put on their rally caps and went to work in the ninth.

"I'm so proud of Devin — the hours he spends in the weight room and the batting cage," said the ECU third baseman. "It just shows that hard work pays off."

Roller doubled off of Johnson with one away in the tenth and the Gamecocks intentionally walked Henderson to set up a possible double play. Tanner opted to bring in Sam Dyson, Friday's winner against George Mason, but Harris lined a 3-1 pitch to center field.

The 248-pound Roller used all of his wheels as he raced home from second to beat the tag from Dalles on the peg from Merrifield in center. Home plate umpire Jeff Henrichs pointed that Roller had touched the plate with his diving slide and made an emphatic safe sign to the delight of the Pirate fans who comprised most of the crowd of 5,047.

Tanner noted that the lowest batting average in ECU's starting lineup was .310.

"For a team that's as good as they are offensively, aggressiveness usually goes with that," said the Gamecocks coach. "But they don't chase a lot of pitches. They're tough outs."

Godwin said he might give out as many as 28 game balls after the win over the Gamecocks in ECU's fifth game in just three days.

"It's the sign of a good club that you don't count on the same guy every day," said the ECU coach.

ECU validated its selection as a No. 1 seed against a Southeastern Conference power.

"We put some pressure on them, but they had they had the best team tonight," Tanner said.

ECU and UNC-Chapel Hill split their regular season meetings with each winning at home.

"We're familiar with them and they're familiar with us," said Godwin, who once assisted Tar Heels coach Mike Fox at Division III powerhouse N.C. Wesleyan. "I have a lot of respect for Mike and what he has built over there."

North Carolina is seeking a fourth straight trip to Omaha.

ECU athletic director Terry Holland was dressed for the weather in shorts and running shoes.

"Baseball is a very important sport to East Carolina University and always has been," Holland said. "These guys have worked extremely hard to put together a program that gets better every year. This is sort of a validation of what they've done and how hard they've worked — the coaching staff as well as the players themselves. Of course, our fans are terrific, too, so it's all a team effort.

"Again, the fact that it validates that is very important to us. We want to keep building."

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06/05/2009 01:06:40 AM


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