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Observations and Punditry
Woody Peele

Woody's Ramblings
Thursday, February 16, 2010

By Woody Peele


Potential in place for "special" season

By Woody Peele
All rights reserved.

Billy Godwin
Billy Godwin
(ECU SID image)

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To the casual East Carolina fan, a glance at the 2012 Pirate baseball roster might cause some concern. It would appear to be the old “good news, bad news” situation.

East Carolina returns most of its position players — there are only a couple of new faces in the lineup. That speaks well for the offense and defense and is the “good news.”

But the list of players who will be taking the mound includes few familiar faces as the Pirates lost a host of their top hurlers.

Gone are Seth Maness (10-3), Brad Mincey (6-4), Seth Simmons (6-2), Shawn Armstrong (3-1) and Mike Wright (6-4), all right-handers and all picked in the Major League Draft.

The only familiar name on the hurling staff is lefty Kevin Brandt (7-3, 1.15 ERA).

That’s the “bad news.”

“We’ve got a lot of new guys,” catcher Zach Wright said, “but they are really great pitchers. We lost some really great ones, but we stepped up our recruiting, both out-of-state and out of the country.”

Five right-handers are newcomers and the coaches and the players are high on them.

“I’m really optimistic,” said head coach Billy Godwin, entering his seventh season with the Bucs. “We have plenty of talent, guys who throw strikes, who throw around the zone. They’re very gifted with good arms. That leaves you with some thoughts that we could have something special.”

Wright agrees.

“The big difference is that we haven’t worked with them like (the veterans). But they’re really well-polished, even the freshmen," he said. "The big thing is that they have to get used to the college atmosphere and playing time to get used to the fans.”

Godwin believes the new staff could excel but agrees that they have to be tested.

“You can identify talent, you can coach, but can they come out and pitch when it counts? The jury is still out on some of these guys," Godwin said.

The most heralded of the newcomers is junior college transfer Jharel Cotton, picked in the 28th round by the New York Mets. He’s expected to be one of the weekend starters, along with Brandt, junior Tyler Joyner, and sophomore Austin Chrismon. Deshorn Lake, a freshman, has been penciled in as the top weekday pitcher but could also work into the weekend shift.

Jeff Hoffman and David Lucroy, both freshmen, and Andy Smithmyer, a junior transfer, round out the pitching staff.

“They really throw hard, all of them,” Wright commented. “I don’t think we’ve had as many strong arms as we have since I’ve been here. They are really electric and there’s no telling what they can do if we put if all together.

“It starts with me. I have to let them know what’s going on and get them settled down if they get rattled. I don’t think they’re ready to have 4,000 people yelling for them on Feb. 17, but that’s what I’ve got to get them ready for.”

Cotton, Godwin said, has a change-up pitch that has to be seen to be appreciated.

“It’s like watching a Bugs Bunny cartoon,” he said, laughing. “It’s so slow, batters might swing three times before it gets to the plate, striking out on one pitch.”

The biggest loss on the field is centerfielder Trent Whitehead, who hit .325 with four homers and drove in 29 runs, also stealing 17 bases.

“(He’ll) be tough to replace,” Godwin said. “But I’m still excited because nearly every player who started on a regular basis is back.”

The Pirates have some talent at the top of the lineup who can “set the table,” Godwin said, and some who can drive in runs in the middle of the lineup.

“One through nine, we have a chance to be very competitive,” the coach said. “The lineup is as solid as I’ve had since I’ve been here. I’m not trying to jinx us, but if the guys do what we expect them to do, we have a chance to be special.”

While Wright (.272, 13 HR) returns behind the plate, John Wooten is back at first (.298). Bryan Bass and Mike Ussery (.264) are battling at second base. Corey Thompson (.328, 6 HR), returns at third with Jack Reinheimer (.311) at short.

Ben Fultz (.303, 3 HR) is back in left and Phillip Clark (.310, 3 HR) returns to right. Centerfield could also see Chris Gosik (.283), who saw some action last season.

Chase McDonald (.314, 4 HR), is back at the designated hitter slot.

Home run production dropped last season with the introduction of the new, less-powerful bats, but Godwin notes that the Pirates still hit a good number of them.

“We may see an increase this year,” he said. “The bats have a better balance and the guys have a better feel for them. After a year with them, they’re pretty used to them.”

Godwin said balls don’t come off the bats like a “nuclear warhead” anymore, but the past year has given the bat companies and the players “more options.”

“Last year, I heard a number of comments about (the bats),” Godwin said, “but I’ve hardly heard anything this year. And our productivity (of homers) was up in the fall.”

Godwin believes the defense is improved from last season when the Pirates recorded 74 errors.

“The key is in the middle with Wright, Reinheimer and Ussery back,” Godwin said. “Bass is a younger player with good skills who could play, too. Phil Clark has the skill to play center and so does Ben Fultz. Jay Cannon is another possibility and we’ve even experimented with Drew Reynolds as a left-handed option. And Gosik is another who had a great, great fall.”

Whitehead, now a student assistant coach, does leave big shoes to fill.

“He probably had the best first step and off-the-bat instincts of any centerfielder I’ve coached,” Godwin said. “It’s hard to teach that. Sometimes he had three steps before the pitch was thrown. I’m not putting (the other centerfielders) down, because they have more speed than Trent and that (will make up for some of it).”

Now, Whitehead is trying to continue to be a leader as a coaching assistant, projecting the work ethic he had as a player.

“We have a good schedule,” Godwin said of this season. “When you play non-conference in this area, you play quality opponents like N.C. State, North Carolina, UNC-Wilmington, Elon, Old Dominion and VCU. This year, 15 (opponents) averaged in the top 50 in RPI for the last four years. Half the schedule is in the top 100 (the top 33 percent). That’s the kind of schedule we want to play.”

As they have for the last few years, the Pirates will make an important road trip, this year to the Alabama Tournament.

“It’s not going to make or break our season,” Godwin said, “but it’s important. Every year we like to put our kids on the road (against top teams) prior to conference. That allows us to get into a good road routine.

“We challenge them to find out some things they didn’t know about themselves, some good things and some things they have to get better with. Sometimes negatives are the best teachers. The greatest hitters are those who make adjustments pitch-to-pitch, not day-to-day or week-to-week. If you wait too long, you’re done.”

East Carolina will visit Troy prior to going to Tuscaloosa, where they’ll face ‘Bama, Oral Roberts and Louisville.

Once the Conference USA schedule begins, the Pirates know they are in an elite league.

“We may not get the credit we deserve (as a conference) because we’re not in a BCS (football) conference,” Godwin said. “If we were in the BCS, this would be a BCS-type (baseball) league. This league has great programs and great coaches. There are no gimmies in this league.”

And Godwin is “cautiously optimistic” about another NCAA tournament slot, something the Pirates have earned 11 of the past 13 seasons.

“I’m excited about these young men who seem to be focused and engaged with what we’re doing,” Godwin said of the post-season hopes. “They seem to be playing for the name on the front (of the jerseys), not the name of the back (player names) and that excites me.”

East Carolina opens the season Friday, hosting Wisconsin-Milwaukee in the first game of a three-game set at 3 p.m. Saturday’s game is at 2 p.m. and Sunday’s begins at 1 p.m.

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