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Pirate Notebook No. 383
Monday, May 18, 2009

Denny O'Brien

Pirates need deep C-USA run

By Denny O'Brien
All Rights Reserved.

Don’t understate the significance of the Conference USA baseball tournament for East Carolina.

Though the Pirates are C-USA regular season champs and firmly locked into the NCAA tournament field with – at worst – a No. 2 seed, they can greatly enhance their postseason path with a deep run in Hattiesburg this week.

With a solid finish to a solid season, East Carolina suddenly finds itself back in the conversation for hosting an NCAA Regional. An appearance in the C-USA Tournament title game could provide the finishing touches to a host-worthy résumé.

An early exit almost assuredly will keep the Pirates on the two-line and send them to someone else’s home turf, a scenario that has never ended triumphantly for ECU.

The 2004 season should provide a good reminder of the importance of the league tournament. The Pirates sailed smoothly through the conference schedule and rocketed into the national Top 10 and onto the cusp of a national seed in the NCAA Tournament.

The latter would have kept the Pirates home for a Super Regional series and significantly improved their chances for reaching Omaha.

But by essentially dismissing the importance of the C-USA tourney and exiting early, the Pirates saw their national seeding evaporate and were handed one of the lower No. 1 spots in the field. That meant a Super Regional trip to hostile Sarge Frye Field to face a loaded South Carolina club that was one of the favorites to win the national title.

That could have been avoided had the Pirates performed with more purpose in the league tournament. Winning it – and they were a heavy favorite to do so – would have set the stage for a more favorable route to Omaha.

Though the stakes are slightly different this year, they are no less significant.

Hosting, especially in this region of the country, has almost become a prerequisite for postseason advancement. The southeast has the largest concentration of baseball powers, and home field advantage can be crucial considering the NCAA’s focus on localizing the Regional round as much as possible.

With the current economy and the focus on shrinking travel expenses, you can bet the NCAA will make every effort to regionalize the opening weekend of the tournament this year. The last thing the Pirates want is a trip to Chapel Hill where an elite pitching staff awaits.

If the Pirates can make enough noise to earn a top seed, they will play the first weekend on a field where they’ve posted a 28-7 record in 2009. It also will provide Pirates coach Billy Godwin with the flexibility to backload his pitching rotation given the more favorable opening match-up.

Neither is a possibility if the Pirates sink in Hattiesburg.

The good news is the ECU pitching staff could be peaking at the right moment. Friday starter Chris Heston (7-0, 3.44 ERA) has been consistent all season, and Seth Maness (9-0, 3.99 ERA) has been lights out since he dominated Rice on April 11.

Brad Mincey and Kevin Brandt have also emerged as quality starters who also are capable of providing spot relief.

Meanwhile, middle infielders Ryan Wood and Dustin Harrington have found a power surge at the plate, providing the Pirates with base-clearing pop in unlikely spots in the batting order. And though no one will accuse the Pirates of being outstanding defensively, there at least has been some improvement of late.

Those factors, coupled with the top seed in the C-USA tournament, should map a favorable course for a good run in Hattiesburg. Potential breakdowns both mentally and with execution now loom as the Pirates’ biggest obstacle to hosting an NCAA Regional.

Though some schools have the luxury of taking their conference tournament lightly, East Carolina doesn’t have that option. The Pirates must succeed in Hattiesburg if they want a Regional to come to Greenville.

They simply can’t afford to follow the blueprint from 2004.

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05/18/2009 02:39:16 AM

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