The abrupt end to the last college baseball season undoubtedly is connected to today’s start of a new season, not only for East Carolina’s three seniors, but for all of the Pirates who are eager to play as many games as possible and hopeful for a complete campaign.
ECU made it through 17 games last year — boasting a 13-4 record — before the rise of the COVID-19 pandemic shut down all NCAA spring sports.
The stressful and empty days that followed are not lost on the players who have since then battled through fall workouts and preseason scrimmages to prepare for a fresh set of games still affected by the pandemic. Getting ready to host Rhode Island this weekend for a three-game series at Clark-LeClair Stadium — a series with a maximum of 100 fans at each contest — has meant updating COVID-19 protocols and multiple testing days earlier this week.
“I think they are pretty hungry and they are ready to play somebody else,” Pirate coach Cliff Godwin said recently during a virtual news conference. “With the older guys, you are talking about a team that had their (2020) season, and the rug got pulled out from under them. ... I’ve been thinking it’s almost like the first day I was going to be the head coach and coach a game against Virginia back in 2015, just because we haven’t played baseball in so long. You have just anticipated this day, but not sure with COVID if you’re going to play, so I know our guys and our staff are ready to go out there.”
Godwin also said Thursday all players and coaches tested this week in the Pirates’ Tier 1 bubble produced negative tests.
ECU’s seniors are all pitchers — relievers Matt Bridges and Cam Colmore joined by starter Tyler Smith.
Godwin named Smith as the Pirates’ opening day starter for the first time in the right-hander’s career. He and lefty Jake Kuchmaner have a 33-5 combined career record as ECU’s leaders to its weekend rotation, and second-year freshman Carson Whisenhunt was tabbed to start Game 3 against the Rams.
“The 2021 season means more to me than anything,” said Smith, a Pilot Mountain native who has 30 career starts, half of them in 2019 when ECU finished 48-18 and made the NCAA super regional round for the fifth time in school history. “This season is going to be something special, and I can’t wait to finish out my Pirate career. ECU will always be my home.”
Whisenhunt, a lefty with mid-90s velocity and plenty of potential, has emerged as a key arm for the Pirates.
Not long after last season ended, the team had thoughts of an all-upperclassmen weekend rotation of Gavin Williams, Smith and Kuchmaner. Williams has thrown some bullpen sessions, but he is not expected to be available this weekend, another turning point in a career already sidetracked multiple times by injuries.
“Everybody thought Gavin getting hurt last year (in the preseason) was the end of the world, but we had a guy named (Alec) Burleson who stepped up on Friday night and he was OK for us,” said Godwin, referencing the talented and versatile Burleson, who signed professionally after being drafted by the St. Louis Cardinals last June and is still a frequent visitor at Clark-LeClair Stadium.
After throwing a career-high 49.1 innings in 2019 and starting an NCAA regional championship game, Williams was limited to three scoreless innings last year in which he impressed with five strikeouts.
Colmore and Bridges are part of a bullpen also featuring C.J. Mayhue and Garrett Saylor, who are set for prominent roles. Like Williams, Bridges and Colmore have had to overcome injuries early in their careers.
Colmore produced a 0.00 ERA, 1-0 record and a save in six appearances in 2020. Bridges struck out 11 batters in 10.0 innings.
Burleson is gone, but two-way players still on the roster for ECU include important infielders Zach Agnos and Ryder Giles. Agnos, ECU’s lead third baseman who can shift to other infield spots as needed, made positive strives on the mound during preseason scrimmages.
Overseeing a lot of the pitches and infield alignments will be junior returning starting catcher Seth Caddell, who was one of five Pirates to hit a home run a year ago. Outfielder Bryson Worrell led the Pirates with five.
“Obviously, we are confident in the group of guys and a lot of older players returning on both sides with defensively, on the mound and certainly within the lineup,” said assistant coach Jeff Palumbo, who works with the Pirate infielders and also serves as recruiting coordinator. “But really, that doesn’t necessarily matter, because everyone is going to be older this year and we know that and the players know that. It always gives you a comfort level, to some degree, to roll out players in the lineup that just have been here.
“I think that is going to be important this year with less fans in the stands. In this type of season and at some point in time, we know we’ll face some type of adversity, and just having older guys who have been there and kind of been through it is certainly going to benefit us.”
ECU starts this year with a No. 25 ranking by D1Baseball.com and was picked to finish in first place in the American Athletic Conference preseason poll. UCF, Tulane, Houston are the main challengers looking to take out the Pirates, who won the AAC regular-season title in 2019 with a league all-time best 20-4 record.
Rhode Island went 8-5 a year ago, highlighted by beating Arizona and then a finishing sweep over Delaware State, and was 24-29 in 2019. The Rams are members of the Atlantic 10.
In addition to Rhode Island, ECU has home nonconference weekend series scheduled against Appalachian State, Charlotte, Illinois State and St. John’s. Home-and-home midweek matchups include North Carolina and Duke, beginning Tuesday versus the Blue Devils at Clark-LeClair for a 4 p.m. first pitch. American play begins April 1.
The East Carolina-App. State series March 5-7 is designated as the 18th annual Keith LeClair Classic.
Godwin, an ECU alum who went to Greene Central High School and played for the Pirates under LeClair, has a 214-113-1 career record. His teams have been to four NCAA regionals and two super regionals, and this squad is looking to maneuver its way through the still-present pandemic and charge to another postseason berth after not having that opportunity a year ago.
“When we need something to be accomplished, you can talk to Matt Bridges, Tyler Smith, Cam Colmore, Jake Kuchmaner, Thomas Francisco, Ryder Giles, Seth Caddell, Bryson Worrell or whoever,” Godwin said. “We have a lot of guys returning, so they know the expectations. ... I think our leadership is as good as it’s ever been, with Matt Bridges and Cam Colmore being in our program for six years and Tyler Smith five and Jake Kuchmaner four, Seth Caddell four, and I could keep going on and on with naming players.
“We’re excited to go out there and see how we compare to other teams, but we want to always focus on ourselves.”