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GREENVILLE REGIONAL: Pirates' roster boasts class balance

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East Carolina's Thomas Francisco reaches to catch the ball at first base during a game against Monmouth at Clark-LeClair Stadium on Feb. 23.

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BY RONNIE WOODWARD
The Daily Reflector

Friday, May 31, 2019

East Carolina’s baseball roster features proven veterans who are ready to embrace some of the pressure moments that inevitably will happen during ECU’s historic second straight year serving as an NCAA regional host.

Those players include All-American junior outfielder Bryant Packard and junior pitching ace Jake Agnos — who is Packard’s smiling and high-energy best friend — along with junior first baseman slugger Spencer Brickhouse, fifth-year senior relief pitcher Evan Voliva and senior shortstop Turner Brown.

But ECU also has freshmen and less-experienced players who also are looking to shine this weekend, like hot-hitting freshman Thomas Francisco and starting third baseman/​relief pitcher Ryder Giles.

Players have talked all week about how different the atmosphere is for postgame baseball compared to the regular season. It begins for the host Pirates against No. 4 seed Quinnipiac today at 6 p.m., with the thought of a possible much-anticipated Saturday game against rival N.C. State also looming.

“I saw photos from last year, but honestly I’m not trying to look too much forward or too much into it,” said Francisco, who was in the midst of his departure from Abingdon (Va.) High School last June when ECU was hosting a regional that ultimately was won by No. 2 seed South Carolina. “I want to take it day by day. When it gets here, I want to attack it.”

Francisco has multi-hit outings in four of the Pirates’ last six games, upping his season batting average to .307. ECU’s top two hitters, in terms of batting average, are Alec Burleson (.371) and Packard (.349).

Veteran catcher Jake Washer leads the team with 13 home runs, followed closely by Brickhouse with 12.

Players who show poise and thrive during clutch times can often make the difference during postseason college baseball, which ECU is hoping to use to its advantage as the regional host at Clark-LeClair Stadium.

“You just have to stay in the moment, man, and it is hard because there is going to be a lot of people,” Packard said. “Luckily we are at home. There won’t be many people rooting against us. It can be really easy to get out of the moment and try to have an out-of-body experience, but you really just need to stay in the moment.”

The Pirates have seven seniors on their roster.

N.C. State and Campbell begin the double-elimination tournament with their game at noon.

ECU won its regional opener a year ago, storming UNC Wilmington early and often en route to a 16-7 victory to cause jubilation for the nearly 5,000 fans packed into Clark-LeClair Stadium, but it was South Carolina that calmly won a crucial 4-2 game over the Pirates the next day to reach the championship round and drop ECU into the losers’ bracket.

Burleson, then a freshman, was East Carolina’s starting pitcher versus South Carolina. He yielded three runs in 3.1 innings.

This time, Burleson is a key bullpen arm while remaining a possible starting option for head coach Cliff Godwin and pitching coach Dan Roszel.

“I was a little bit nervous up there last year, but I think it gives me more experience for this year and I just kind of know what to expect to come out in a regional,” said Burleson, who along with Agnos was named a Collegiate Baseball first-team All-American on Friday.

A plus for the Pirates could be how their regular season schedule was set up this year, playing many of their most difficult opponents on the road. That included midweek games at Mississippi State and Ole Miss, along with a weekend series at No. 1 UCLA.

ECU beat Ole Miss and North Carolina in away contests.

It lost to Mississippi State and was swept by UCLA in a three-game series decided by a total of eight runs.

The Pirates played 14 weekend series, and their only series defeat was to UCLA. They are 24-5 at home this season.

“I think our guys are prepared and we’ve played in a bunch of different situations this year,” Godwin said. “We’ve played on the road and in hostile environments. We played the No. 1-ranked team in the country three times at their place, so we’ve been very consistent for the most part. We’ll just need to come out here and play our best baseball.”

Agnos, who has a 10-2 record and 2.00 ERA, said one key during a regional environment can be gaining an early lead over an opponent.

“Each game you want to go out there with the fire and swing first and punch first,” the lefty from Haymarket, Va., said. “(Last year) was the first time we’ve experienced a regional in Greenville, so getting our feet wet with that, we’ll be ready to go and know what to expect. We know the fans will be into it, and it’s going to be fun.”

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

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