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The Bradsher Beat
Saturday, March 22, 2008

By Bethany Bradsher

'Mr. Sunday' finds his place

By Bethany Bradsher
All rights reserved.

In this era of sports specialization — 11-year-olds going to pitching clinics and 9-year-olds focusing only on blocking — Justin Bristow is a rare commodity.

Bristow, who transferred to East Carolina from Auburn in the fall, is that exceptional college baseball player who still multitasks. When he was recruited out of Mills Godwin High School in Richmond three years ago, coaches wanted him for his trifold talent of pitching, hitting and fielding.

Plenty of Division I schools came knocking out of high school, but Auburn offered him the opportunity to do both of the things he liked best: be a starting pitcher and a third baseman. But injuries and lineup changes dismantled that plan, leading Bristow to start 53 games at shortstop as a freshman but none on the mound. As a sophomore, he started eight games in the infield and four as a pitcher.

Over the course of those two years, Bristow came to realize that Auburn wasn’t the right fit for him, and he still held out hope of filling both of those roles.

“I thought I found a place where I was comfortable,” he said earlier this week. “I liked Auburn a lot, it just happened that after two years it wasn’t the right situation."

Godwin came calling, and Bristow felt like ECU was a better fit because it was closer to home and the coaching staff seemed more committed to using his blend of talents.

“It was an easy transition for me,” Bristow said.

When he first donned a Pirates uniform, Bristow was penciled in as a possible starting third baseman, and the coaches sang the praises of his mechanics and toughness on the mound. But as the preseason unfolded, the ECU coaches realized that while Bristow should definitely start, the space on the field he should occupy was actually several yards over from third base, on the pitcher’s mound.

As part of the ECU starting rotation, Bristow is 3-0 already, with a reputation for being Mr. Sunday, Godwin said.

“Justin’s made a tremendous contribution to go out and be 3-0 for us on Sundays,” Godwin said. “Sundays are a very important time for us.”

Bristow’s arm has definitely become a valuable commodity, and both player and coach realized early in the season that third base wasn’t the place to keep that asset safe. After attempting to play third in the season-opening series at South Carolina, Bristow had to face the reality of what he was asking his body to do.

“I wanted to do both, but being a starting pitcher and playing third base is pretty much impossible,” Bristow said. “I appreciate the opportunity they gave me to try to do it, but I went in there to their office after the first week and said, ‘I don’t think this is going to work out.’ ”

Bristow is still taking some opportunities to sharpen his non-pitching skills, as a backup first baseman, a late replacement pinch hitter and a designated hitter against some left-handed pitchers. He can remain an unpredictable threat, Godwin said, as long as his long throws in the infield and his multiple at-bats are limited.

“You have to balance it, because when he goes out there on Sunday you want him to be fresh,” Godwin said. “Playing the left side is a very demanding thing.”

At the plate so far this season, Bristow has two hits and two runs in 13 at-bats. On the mound, he has a team-high 1.93 ERA and 22 strikeouts. Along with his teammates, he is anxious to prove what the nationally-ranked Pirates can do against their Conference USA opponents, starting with this weekend's three-game set against visiting Houston.

“I think you almost have to start over once Conference USA starts,” Bristow said before the start of the Houston series. “We’re coming in hot. We just need to start off on a good foot in conference play.”

The Cougars are perennially one of the teams to beat in the conference, Godwin said as his team prepared for the league opener, and ECU needs to keep up its recent offensive fireworks to build on its momentum.

“I said at the beginning of the year, I thought this club was one of the best offensive clubs I’ve ever been around,” Godwin said. “I knew what they were capable of doing. It’s just nice to see that they can go out when the scoreboard comes on and produce.”

Houston trounced the Pirates 14-2 on Friday in the series opener, ending ECU's winning streak at 13. The teams meet again today at 3 p.m.

Bristow is expected to get the start in the series wrap-up on Sunday at 11 a.m.

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03/21/2008 10:54:32 PM

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