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Tourney time for Pirates

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East Carolina senior left-hander Evan Kruczynski pitches against Central Florida at Clark-LeClair Stadium on Saturday, April 15, 2017.

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By RONNIE WOODWARD
The Daily Reflector

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

The ideal plan for East Carolina baseball this week is for senior Evan Kruczynski to pitch the Pirates to victory tonight against American Athletic Conference regular-season champion Central Florida and to be back on the mound again Sunday for the AAC tournament title. But ECU third-year coach Cliff Godwin is aware of the many variables that can come into play during the double-elimination tournament setting in Clearwater, Fla.

It also has been an unpredictable year in the American, most evident by the preseason league favorite Pirates (29-27) trudging through their schedule to finish last in the conference and there being a four-way tie for first place at the final day of the regular season. Central Florida (38-18) emerged from that group Saturday, beating South Florida 3-2 to take the AAC crown, and is matched up against ECU today in the 1-versus-8 seed matchup.

The Pirates and Knights are scheduled to play at 7 p.m. with a national broadcast on the CBS Sports Network.

With inclement weather looming for Wednesday, all four first-round games are today. Second-round action will be split between early games Wednesday and Thursday evening.

“Our league is very good and I don’t know if we’ve caught a break all year, so we are just happy that it’s postseason time,” Godwin said during a phone interview Sunday morning, one day after his squad closed the regular season with a 3-0 win at Connecticut after the Huskies took the first two games of the series and were one of the four squads tied for first in the league. “We didn’t care who we got to play, but we just knew we were going to play Tuesday and we’re looking forward to playing.”

Joining ECU and UCF in the bottom half of the bracket are No. 4 South Florida and No. 5 Tulane, meaning one of those four will make the championship Sunday at noon (ESPNews). 

(Click here for bracket)

The matchup against the Knights seems to be favorable for ECU, as the Pirates held late leads in two of the three games against UCF in Greenville in April. But the Knights have been led all year by a superb bullpen, and relievers played a huge role in them sweeping that series at Clark-LeClair Stadium.

East Carolina led 7-1 in the series opener and eventually gave up two runs in the ninth inning and lost 8-7 in the 11th. Game 2 saw ECU lead 4-0 before UCF posted a nine-run top of the eighth. The visitors won 7-0 in the series finale.

Kruczynski, who along with some others did not play against Connecticut to rest, gave up one run in five innings against the Knights, who outscored ECU 16-3 after the sixth inning of the three games.

UCF likely will oppose Kruczynski with senior right-hander and co-AAC pitcher of the year Robby Howell. The Pirates beating Howell (9-0, 3.48 ERA) and the Knights would provide a jolt to the bracket on Day 1 of action.

“That’s the plan,” Godwin said. “Kruz has pitched in a lot of big games and we knew most likely that he was going to have to pitch on Tuesday and that’s why he didn’t pitch the weekend (against UConn). He just needs to go out there and be Kruz, and he’s well rested.”

Tonight’s matchup features a Pirate offense that has shown flashes of explosiveness, but also inconsistency, against UCF and its team ERA of 2.80 - the best in the league and top-five in the country. 

Godwin said Sunday that he hopes his players, especially on offense, play with the same energy they had in closing the regular season with a win at UConn. ECU is 5-5 in its last 10 games.

“Just the energy and the at-bats and the whole atmosphere of the game (Saturday) was refreshing,” Godwin said. “It was vintage ECU baseball, where we were facing one of the best pitchers in the league and we were just smoking balls. ... There were lot of tough at-bats.”

AAC awards

East Carolina’s inclusion in the American Athletic Conference awards released Monday came in the form of seniors Eric Tyler, Travis Watkins and Charlie Yorgen earning first-team nods.

Tyler, a third baseman/outfielder, has a .342 batting average thanks to a hit in 45 of 56 games. He had a streak of reaching base safely in 39 straight games late in the season. 

Yorgen, the Pirates’ second baseman, is second in the league in on-base percentage (.433). Watkins, a fifth-year senior, leads the Pirates in eight offensive categories thanks in part to nine home runs, 43 RBIs and 44 runs scored.

Howell shared pitcher of the year with Houston lefty Trey Cumbie, and player of the year was split between Houston infielder Jake Scheiner and Tulane first baseman Hunter Williams.

Contact Ronnie Woodward at rwoodward@reflector.com, 252-329-9592 and follow @RonnieW11 on Twitter.

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