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Pirate Notebook No. 387
Monday, June 8, 2009

Denny O'Brien

Pirates must mine for pitching

By Denny O'Brien
All Rights Reserved.

CHAPEL HILL — East Carolina didn’t leave Chapel Hill with a ticket to Omaha. But the Pirates at least received an indication as to what it will take to reach the College World Series.

In North Carolina’s series sweep of ECU in the NCAA Super Regional, the Tar Heels drew the Pirates a clear roadmap to Omaha by demonstrating how dominant pitching can tame dominant hitting, even when the aluminum bat is the weapon of choice.

Tar Heels starters Alex White and Adam Warren kept the powerful ECU bats completely cool this weekend with a mix of overpowering fastballs and deceptive off-speed pitches. They had such great command that even their misses were either whiffed at or swatted harmlessly into the ground.

“They rolled out two very good arms,” senior first baseman Brandon Henderson said after North Carolina's 9-3 victory Sunday. “We battled and we hit the ball hard a few times, but we couldn’t get much to fall.

“It’s disappointing, but you’ve got to give credit to them. They pitched their butts off. They’ve got the pitching to go out to (Omaha) and play very well.”

White and Warren pitched so well against the Pirates that you have to consider the Tar Heels a favorite to take the title. Given ECU’s lack of run production this weekend, you also have to consider the possibility that its offensive numbers were inflated by Conference USA pitching.

And while the Tar Heels entered the series with the supposed disadvantage at the plate, their weekend explosion made it fairly clear that they faced better pitching during the regular season than they did this weekend.

Before East Carolina can make travel arrangements for Omaha, there is little question that it must improve on the mound. That the Pirates return almost their entire staff in 2010 is a good start, but there is definitely room for a few powerful arms.

“I think you fail before you succeed sometimes,” Pirates coach Billy Godwin said. “We’ve got a lot of our pitchers coming back. That’s one of the things that I’ve tried to emphasize in my tenure at East Carolina is we’ve got to be able to roll guys out there who can give us a shot.

“You see how important (White and Warren) are for North Carolina. But I think that we’re getting there. We have to keep grinding and keep putting a quality product on the mound. That’s the next step.”

While the challenge for ECU is simple to identify, solving it isn’t. Historically the state’s elite pitchers choose the professional route over college. That leaves East Carolina to battle with North Carolina and its other instate rivals for the next tier of arms.

Currently that’s a battle the Pirates are losing when you consider that Alex White and Adam Warren were plucked from ECU’s own back yard. Until ECU can win some major recruiting battles for the top available pitchers, it will be difficult to supplant the Tar Heels as the state’s supreme program.

Doing so has become increasingly important considering how the NCAA has configured the Field of 64 the past three years. In each season, North Carolina was positioned as an obstacle in the Pirates’ path to Omaha.

There is no question that Godwin has advanced the program significantly from where it was when he took over. The Pirates have made tangible improvement each of the past four seasons, and it is reasonable to believe that Godwin can have them in Omaha soon.

But to get there, ECU might have to beat the Tar Heels, and do so at their own game. Given Coach Mike Fox’s history for luring and developing standout pitching in Chapel Hill, it’s unlikely the Pirates will get to Rosenblatt Stadium by out-slugging the Heels or anyone else in their path.

It’s pretty clear that pitching separates East Carolina from the College World Series.

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06/17/2009 01:22:04 AM

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