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Friday, April 20, 2012

By Al Myatt

Smithmyer heats up Pirates' stove for Rice

By Al Myatt
2012 Bonesville.net
All rights reserved.

East Carolina needed a turnaround and some momentum going into a big Conference USA baseball series at Rice that starts at 7:30 tonight.

The Pirates were coming off a 10-1 non-conference loss at home to regional rival UNC-Wilmington on Tuesday night and were in an early 2-0 hole at Clark-LeClair Stadium to William & Mary on Wednesday night when Andy Smithmyer came to the mound on a rescue mission.

Smithmyer held the Tribe in check and bought the Pirate bats some time to awaken in an eventual 13-4 ECU victory.

The Pirates, who are ranked No. 24 by Perfect Game USA, got a little bounce going into the three-game set with the Owls, who are No. 14 in the same poll.

"Andy Smithmyer certainly was the difference in the game," said ECU coach Billy Godwin. "Him coming in and just pouring it in there, throwing strikes and putting up zeroes kind of gave our guys some life. That was good to see. I don't care where it comes from but it needs to come from somebody.

"He had a lot of confidence. He was going out there and pounding the zone and keeping us in the game. He gave our offense a chance to get back in the game. He just kind of took over."

Smithmyer, a junior right-hander who transferred from Potomac State, came on in relief with two out in the opening inning and kept a 2-0 William & Mary lead from getting any larger. He turned in six scoreless innings, allowed four hits and struck out eight without a walk. In the process, his earned run average dropped to a team-best 1.49 in 14 appearances.

The Pirates took control in the bottom of the sixth when they erupted for eight runs. ECU had 16 hits with the top three in the batting order Jack Reinheimer, Drew Reynolds and Corey Thompson getting three hits each.

Tyler DeLoach wasn't as pure for the Seahawks as Smithmyer was for the Pirates as he hit four batters and walked four over six and one-third innings in the Tuesday contest but he got the job done as UNCW avenged a 5-0 loss to the Bucs in the Port City on April 3.

"He was probably effectively wild," said Godwin of UNCW's 6-foot-6 left-hander from Roanoke Rapids. "It's hard for guys to dig in and focus on a good pitch."

ECU had a 14-7 win on Sunday to take two out of three at Memphis. In compliance with NCAA rules, the Pirates had Monday off and didn't practice the day before the UNCW game.

"The late return, getting in at 2 (a.m.), it's tough," Godwin said. "I know it's tough on me. I'm not a player but these guys have got to get up. They've got to go to class. They've got exams coming up, papers due. It's a grind but it's just part of being a student-athlete."

The grind continued Thursday with a morning bus ride to catch a flight for the trip to Houston. The Pirates were scheduled to work out in Rice's Reckling Park on Thursday evening.

ECU is 26-11-1 overall and 8-3-1 in league play. The Owls are 28-11 on the season and 9-3 in C-USA. Rice is tied for first in the league standings with Central Florida while the Pirates are presently third.

The C-USA coaches picked Rice first, Central Florida second and ECU third in their preseason poll. Right now, their projections are right on target.

The Perfect Game website is currently projecting ECU as the No. 2 seed in an NCAA Tournament regional hosted by North Carolina that would also include Elon (No. 3) and Monmouth (No. 4). The Pirates play the Tar Heels in Chapel Hill on Wednesday at 6 p.m.

The Owls are projected as host of a regional that would include Texas as the No. 2 seed, Texas Christian as No. 3 and Canisius as No. 4. Of course, there is a lot of baseball to be played in Conference USA before the NCAA Tournament pairings are announced.

Rice is coming off a 5-4 win at No. 5 Texas A&M on Tuesday night.

The Owls have ample tradition. They won the College World Series in 2003. Coach Wayne Graham, who turned 76 earlier this month, will be inducted into the College Baseball Hall of Fame in late June. Rice has seven players in the major leagues including Lance Berkman, who helped the St. Louis Cardinals win the World Series last fall. The Owls have a nation's best .742 winning percentage since 1999. Rice has won or shared 16 consecutive league championships.

"Until somebody else proves otherwise, the conference championship goes through Rice," Godwin said. " ... They're a great program. I'm excited for our guys to go in there and compete. I keep saying I like our team. We've just got to go in there and focus on one pitch at a time, one game at a time."

ECU will go with its weekend rotation of senior left-hander Kevin Brandt (5-2, 1.92 ERA) tonight, junior lefty Tyler Joyner (5-1, 2.89) on Saturday at 3 p.m. and junior righty Jharel Cotton (6-0, 3.35) on Sunday at noon.

"It's a great opportunity for our program," Godwin said. "We talk about winning championships. We're halfway through the conference season. To be in that position is great. There are a lot of clubs that aren't in that position right now. We've got to make the most of it."

E-mail Al Myatt

PAGE UPDATED 04/20/12 03:34 AM.

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