Alec Burleson enters his junior and likely final collegiate baseball season as one of the top two-way players in the country.

The left-hander will be ECU’s starting pitcher today in the first game against William & Mary for the start of coach Cliff Godwin’s sixth season with the Pirates. Burleson also will bat for himself, serving as the most productive and proven hitter on the Pirates’ roster to this point in his All-American career.

What about fellow lefty pitcher Jake Kuchmaner?

“I asked (Godwin) the other day during indoor hitting (practice) if I could get some swings in,” said Kuchmaner, the American Athletic Conference preseason pitcher of the year, during ECU’s recent media day event. “It is what it is and I’m focusing on pitching, but maybe we run into a situation again where I get some at-bats and hopefully get a hit this time.”

Kuchmaner is best known for his left arm and throwing a perfect game last season, although he did receive three unexpected right-handed at-bats during the championship game of last year’s NCAA Greenville Regional won by the Pirates. He also was a fill-in first baseman during fall workouts and routinely serves as the Pirates’ fungo and infield practice hitter.

Burleson, who was a freshman All-American in 2018 and last year was named to five All-America teams thanks to a .370 batting average, 61 RBIs, 6-2 pitching record and five saves, was voted as AAC preseason player of the year. The 6-foot-2, 212-pound Denver, N.C., native also hit nine home runs as a sophomore.

He, Kuchmaner and senior Tyler Smith lead a pitching staff that will later feature 6-6 junior righty Gavin Williams when Williams fully recovers from a preseason finger injury.

Other veteran pitchers for the Pirates, who are ranked No. 21 in the country by D1baseball.com entering the season and are favored to win the AAC for the second straight year, include Cam Colmore, Evan Odum and Matt Bridges. ECU also added four junior college transfer pitchers for this year.

“(The preseason) makes us better, because our pitchers can exploit our weaknesses and we know what we need to work on,” Burleson said after a bullpen session and before Tuesday’s full practice. “We can take that into opening weekend and throughout the season. We were talking Sunday that we are excited to get against somebody else and face an opponent.”

Burleson has a career 3.31 ERA in 43 appearances. When he’s not on the pitching mound, he will likely play first base or left field.

Building around Burleson and complementing him will be important for a new-look ECU offense. The Pirates, who are aiming for their third straight 40-win season and fourth under Godwin, are hopeful for breakout sophomore campaigns at the plate by Thomas Francisco, Ryder Giles, Connor Norby and Lane Hoover.

“I would say this team, as a whole, I’m still trying to figure out its identity,” Godwin said. “That’s just because there are so many new guys. With 18 new guys and 18 returners, there is just a mix. You want to kind of see what their M.O. is. ... There is, I guess, a lot of unseen stuff and we’re predicting a lot of these guys to (step up), but we’ll see when the lights come on.”

Projected starting center fielder Bryson Worrell was a standout during the fall and has plenty of pop in his bat. Hoover, Christian Jayne, Christian Smallwood and a few newcomers also should earn quality playing time in the outfield.


Leading a group of four catchers is Seth Caddell, who has smoothly transitioned into a leadership role in his junior campaign. He could join Worrell and others in trying to protect Burleson in the middle of the Pirates’ batting order.

Giles is a natural at shortstop and ready to man that position after starting 52 games at third base in 2019.

“You need to know the play before it happens and know where everybody is supposed to be aligned,” Giles said of playing shortstop. “Your awareness just has to be above probably playing another position, but I love it. I love the challenge of it and just being aware of what everybody else is doing. It makes me better.”

Giles also pitched 24 innings last year as a rookie.

Adding to the versatility of this team is a freshman class that includes first baseman Carson Whisenhunt, talented infielder Skylar Brooks and starting third baseman Zach Agnos as players who also can pitch. Burleson leads the way in terms of versatility, but a slew of Pirates behind him were brought in as likely two-way contributors.

“We recruited Burleson as a pitcher we were going to allow to hit, and now, the professional ranks like him as a hitter better than a pitcher,” Godwin said. “To us, he’s equally as important as one of the best pitchers in the country and one of the best hitters in the country. ... It’s a lot of workload to be a freshman two-way player in our program and (Agnos) has handled it like he is a veteran.

“I hope it’s a great atmosphere (this weekend) and the cooler temperatures don’t deter fans. I just want (our players) to go out there and do what they have done, because you get yourself in trouble when you try to play differently. For a guy like Zach Agnos in the starting lineup on opening day, just do exactly what you have done since Day 1.”

There was not just natural roster turnover, like losing junior sluggers Bryant Packard, Spencer Brickhouse and Jake Washer all to the Major League Baseball draft last year, but the Pirates also have newness in their coaching and support staff. Jeff Palumbo returns as recruiting coordinator and associate head coach, but Jason Dietrich is the new pitching coach, and Godwin brought in former Ole Miss player and Louisiana Tech coach Austin Knight to be a first-year Pirate assistant coach.

Dietrich worked previously at Oregon and Cal State Fullerton. He came to the Pirates with veteran players already established and has had to work around some preseason adversity via player injuries and soreness.

Godwin has said this is his deepest group of talented pitchers.

The Pirates will play at Clark-LeClair Stadium the first three weekends. The LeClair Classic on Feb. 28-March 1 is highlighted by East Carolina facing Indiana (Feb. 28) and Ole Miss (Feb. 29) on consecutive days. ECU also will host Duke and play UNC home-and-home in midweek action.

“Just compete,” Kuchmaner said. “We’ve had two good years in the past, and it’s been because of the way we competed. We need to continue that and build on it.”

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