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View from the 'ville
Friday, June 12, 2009

By Al Myatt

Many factors curtailed Pirates

By Al Myatt
All rights reserved.

An excellent season came to a close for East Carolina last weekend in Chapel Hill as North Carolina claimed a berth in the College World Series for the fourth straight season.

The Tar Heels topped the Pirates 9-3 on Sunday at renovated Boshamer Stadium after a 10-1 win on Saturday as right-handers Alex White and Adam Warren kept the ECU bats about as quiet as they have been all season in the best-of-three super regional.

In addition to very effective starting pitching, the Heels benefitted from big sixth innings each day. ECU's offensive highlights were a solo home run by Brandon Henderson on Saturday, which provided a short-lived 1-0 advantage, and three runs on Sunday after North Carolina had taken an 8-0 lead.

There are several schools of thought as to why the Pirates struggled to score runs with a lineup in which each batter was hitting .310 or better. First of all, you have to credit White and Warren for long and strong efforts.

"(The difference in this series was) just the way their pitchers came out and pitched," said Pirates senior second baseman Ryan Wood. "Warren ... was real impressive. He was hitting his spots, and if he missed, he was missing a couple of balls off, a couple of inches off the plate, especially his fastball.

"He could locate his breaking ball for a strike and put it where he wanted to."

ECU freshman right-hander Kevin Brandt had shut out North Carolina for 8 1/3 innings in Greenville in a 4-0 Pirates win on April 22 but indicated that the Tar Heels were more aggressive at the plate when he saw them last Sunday.

"They came out ready to hit," Brandt said. "I just tried to pitch the same. I don't know if they changed their game plan, but they came out hitting. I'm always trying to get a first-pitch strike. I guess they were seeing the ball and hitting the ball on the first-pitch strike, knowing it was coming."

North Carolina coach Mike Fox said the team's offensive strategy throughout the season has been to set the table for Dustin Ackley and Kyle Seager, but the Tar Heels hardly looked like a two-man team against the Pirates. They showed the type of balance throughout the lineup that had typically characterized ECU during the 2009 season.

Winning experience was another factor in North Carolina's favor. Its seniors were playing in their fourth super regional and they've won all four.

"I always like coming to these (postgame news conferences with my shoes and socks wet," said Fox in reference to the postgame dousing he received. " ... I just can't describe the ride we've been on."

The Tar Heels have a lot of big game experience in their program and also had the advantage of playing at home as the No. 4 national seed. The super regional drew 4,316 on Saturday, a Boshamer Stadium record, and 4,271 on Sunday, the second largest crowd at the facility.

Roughly 80 percent of the fans appeared to be wearing Carolina blue, a significant home field advantage. The Pirates were able to feed off of their fan base during a run through the losers' bracket in the regional in Greenville. The season series between East Carolina and North Carolina went to the team playing on its home turf in each of the four games.

ECU played five games in three days and spent significantly more emotion and physical energy in getting to the super regional than the Tar Heels did. The adrenaline simply wasn't flowing to the same degree for the Pirates in Chapel Hill.

In order to become a national seed in the NCAA Tournament and enjoy the advantages of playing at home in a super regional, ECU is going to have to become the dominant team in Conference USA, a niche where the Rice Owls have been perched for most of this decade.

The Pirates have some holes to fill as they move forward and seek to continue the improvement that has characterized Billy Godwin's four-year tenure as head coach.

ECU missed the NCAA Tournament for the only time in the last 11 seasons in Godwin's first year in 2006. The Pirates lost out in a regional in Chapel Hill in 2007. They went to the regional final at Coastal Carolina in 2008 and won their first regional in Greenville in dramatic fashion in 2009.

Among the seniors who have helped produce that climb are reliever Bailey Daniels, first baseman Henderson, third baseman Drew Schieber, second baseman Wood and left fielder Stephen Batts.

Right fielder Devin Harris, right-handed pitcher Chris Heston and designated hitter Kyle Roller will all weigh options from this week's major league draft against playing their senior seasons for ECU.

The MLB draft also cut a swath through the Pirates' signing class. Slugger Mike Trout was a first round choice, the 25th pick overall by the Los Angeles Angels, and would be turning down big bucks to enroll in Greenville. Nick McBride was a fifth round pick, Walker Gurley went in the 13th round and John Wooten was selected in the 20th round.

Outfielder Austin Homan showed promise as a hitter in the postseason and the Pirates will return the bulk of their pitching staff.

Catcher Jared Avchen, infielder Dustin Harrington and center fielder Trent Whitehead lead the returning position players from a 46-20 club that won the C-USA regular-season title.

"We've got a lot of our pitchers who will be back," Godwin said. "That*s one of the things I have tried to emphasize in my tenure at East Carolina — that we have to roll guys out there to give us a shot. You see how important those guys are that went out there for North Carolina ..., and I think we*re getting there. We have to keep grinding and keep putting a quality product on the mound.

"That*s the next step, but I think some of the experiences like this, sometimes I say that a player*s failure is his best teacher. It hurts, it stings, but I think it's an important part of growing and maturing as a team and as a program."

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06/12/2009 01:41:32 AM


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