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Rankings, rivalry play to ECU-UNC matchup

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East Carolina coach Cliff Godwin, right, talks to an umpire during the Pirates' home game against UNC Wilmington on April 23.

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BY RONNIE WOODWARD
The Daily Reflector

Tuesday, May 7, 2019

This is the time in the college baseball season when national RPI rankings are just as important as any set of rankings, which is a factor in East Carolina’s trip to Chapel Hill on Wednesday for its only scheduled meeting this year against North Carolina.

ECU (36-11) is ranked No. 8 by Baseball America and is No. 5 in the RPI metrics.

The Pirates are in solid position as an NCAA regional host, but they also are eyeing a potential top-eight super regional host position.

UNC, which is backed by its 15-9 record in the Atlantic Coast Conference, also is in the postseason host mix. The Tar Heels, who lost two of three weekend games to ECU in 2018, are No. 13 in RPI and also ranked 13th by D1baseball.com.

“First of all, it is huge for RPI because I’m sure theirs is good from being in the ACC,” said Pirate outfielder Bryant Packard, a Greenville native and one of many in-state players on ECU’s roster. “It is huge for us because I grew up watching them and I feel like everybody liked UNC in every sport. Beating them last year really felt good, and we’ll try to do that again this year.”

First pitch at Boshamer Stadium is scheduled for 6 p.m.

Packard added that last week was the first time he heard Pirate fifth-year coach Cliff Godwin talk about rankings and other big-picture goals for this season.

American Athletic Conference front-runner ECU is 1-1 versus the ACC, splitting two games against Duke, and 1-1 against the Southeastern Conference after losing to Mississippi State and then beating Ole Miss on the road in early March midweek action.

“Look, we want to be a national seed and we are not running from it and we want to do it,” Godwin said. “We have put ourselves in a good situation, but if we don't win games, then we won’t be a national seed and won’t be a regional host. We need to just keep taking care of business.”

Godwin did not announce a starting pitcher before Tuesday’s practice, referencing that the bullpen will likely be key versus the Heels. Alec Burleson was the Pirates’ last midweek starting pitcher, and he did not pitch in the team’s weekend sweep at Cincinnati.

UNC is slated to start junior college transfer and first-year Tar Heel Andrew Grogan, a right-hander with a 3.38 ERA who has made six starts.

Godwin confirmed that junior pitcher Trey Benton is out for the rest of the season with an arm injury he suffered recently. The right-hander thrived in April as a part-time starter and reliever, lowering his season ERA from 6.57 to 4.01 with a 4-0 record.

“He will not pitch again this year, and it is a blow and not great for him or not great for us, but like I told our team, if it would have happened last year at this time, then we wouldn’t have won the conference tournament,” Godwin said. “We didn't have enough pitching, but this year, we are deeper. ... Trey is going to pitch again and I don’t know when it will be, but Trey will pitch again.”

The Pirates and Tar Heels split the first two games of their rare weekend series a year ago, followed by ECU routing Carolina 12-0 in Chapel Hill in the finale. UNC was off last weekend, but hosted Winthrop on Tuesday night before welcoming in the Pirates.

“A game with East Carolina versus North Carolina, it’s good for (freshmen) to see what that is like and that big-game atmosphere,” ECU junior first baseman Spencer Brickhouse said. “For me, I just go in and try to focus on playing baseball and not worry about what’s going on around me.”

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

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