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Pirate Notebook No. 344
Monday, May 12, 2008

By Denny O'Brien

Unlikely battery raises expectations

By Denny O'Brien
All Rights Reserved.

Almost effortlessly the freshman hurls the ball to the senior for a familiar result.

Strike three.

Moments later, the senior, free from his required protective armor, blasts an opposite field shot that threatens to abandon the zip code. His ensuing trot around the bases has a routine feel that rivals a banker’s morning coffee.

In many ballparks across America it isn’t an astonishing scenario. Given the cycling of talented players through the major college baseball ranks, finding a freshman ace and superior senior backstop in one program is a fairly common occurrence, one that isn’t foreign each June in Omaha.

But for East Carolina, this is an unlikely tandem, one that perhaps possesses the keys to Omaha’s elusive gates. Seth Maness, an unimposing freshman ace, and Corey Kemp, an unassuming senior catcher, have emerged as the improbable catalysts behind the Pirates’ postseason push.

Take Maness. He isn’t the physical blueprint found on the canvas of most Major League scouts. Far from it. At 5’11” and a burger short of 170, his stature isn’t exactly tailored for the Kentucky Derby, but he’s closer to that than the anatomical template for many of the game’s premier power pitchers.

Then there’s Kemp, whose physique doesn’t exactly rival Michelangelo’s David. Nor did his plate production in 2007 have him on many watch lists for postseason awards entering the season.

Perhaps his .267 batting average last year is partly to explain for that, along with the lack of swagger with which he approaches the game.

“Last year, I had a tough year,” Kemp said. “Coming here and getting acclimated to a bigger college lifestyle than at Young Harris was tough, and I didn’t respond too well.

“When I got here from junior college, I was a pull, pull, pull guy. I didn’t hit a lot of balls the opposite way and I popped up a lot. This year I’m hitting a lot more line drives and balls hard on the ground that are getting through.

"I think the biggest part has been using the whole field, and not using just half of it.”

Kemp credits his work ethic for that. A relentless cage rat, BP has been a redemptive sanctuary, one in which he often took up to 150 cuts during the off-season. That’s in a day.

The results have been a statistical metamorphosis. Following the weekend series against Tulane, he owned an impressive .356 average with 14 home runs and 62 RBI.

For Maness it’s been a different route to success. Much different.

During fall practice, Maness, a successful pitcher and hitter at Pinecrest High, spent his share of time taking grounders at second base. And it wasn’t for the purposes of supplying an extra hand during batting practice.

Maness was considered an option as a middle infielder for the Pirates. Few knew that he would eventually hold the pole position in ECU’s weekend rotation and open a perfect 8-0 before bowing to Tulane ace Shooter Hunt.

“My success has surprised me a lot,” Maness admitted. “I had no idea that I would be doing this well this at this point in the season.”

“It was so tough to come in here and not know if I was going to have a spot and have to work for that,” Maness said. “And then throwing to these hitters. In high school you could get away with leaving a curve ball up or fastball up. But in college, these balls are getting hit out of the ballpark.”

And when you don’t singe a scout’s radar gun, you must rely heavily on changing speeds and hitting your spots. Maness does so with near flawless precision almost every night he tosses it 60-feet, six inches to Kemp.

That he didn’t do so on Friday shouldn’t have been punctuated with major headlines. He is, after all, a true freshman who was pitching against one of the nation’s elite programs.

Ditto for Kemp, whose 1-for-12 performance over the weekend wouldn’t have caused a stir back when he existed near the bottom of ECU’s batting order.

But the unlikely production of both Kemp and Maness this season has successfully altered our expectations of them, if not our perception of the Pirates overall.

Could it be that Maness and Kemp are simply microcosms of a team that at 36-16 has overachieved to date? Are they portraits of a club that lacks pitching depth, can be clumsy defensively, and struggles against good pitching – yet was a strong bet to host an NCAA Regional entering the weekend?

Regardless of how we label them, neither Maness nor Kemp figured to have the impact they have had on the season. As much as anyone, this duo has been the improbable secret to ECU’s success.

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05/12/2008 12:59:08 AM

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