East Carolina baseball has four seniors, most of whom have dealt with injuries at some point during their careers, and two are fifth-year seniors.
One is pitcher Tyler Smith, who ended his sophomore year in 2018 thinking there was at least a chance his junior season might be his last in college because of Major League Baseball draft possibilities.
Smith came to ECU in the same class with Bryant Packard, Spencer Brickhouse, Jake Agnos and Trey Benton.
Five Pirate juniors were drafted last year and they all turned pro, while Smith was not selected and is back with the Pirates and cemented into the ECU weekend rotation as a veteran right-hander in his final season.
“It is a little different, yes, but they are doing their thing now and I am still here and going to do the best of my ability to help this team and go as far as we can,” said Smith, who has made 26 career starts and had a sophomore ERA of 1.78. “I still have some best friends here now. It’s a little different not seeing (former Pirates) every day, but it’s not that big of a deal.”
ECU’s other seniors are utility infielder Nick Barber and righty pitchers Matt Bridges and Cam Colmore.
Bridges redshirted last season while recovering from Tommy John surgery. Colmore redshirted in 2017, which led to him changing his arm slot, and he made only six appearances the next year before ranking third on the team a season ago in relief outings. He thrived late in his junior season, lowering his career ERA to 4.19.
Both of the pitchers’ up-and-down experiences, which for Bridges included striking out six Texas Tech batters in 2.2 innings as a freshman in an NCAA super regional win in Lubbock, Texas, have aided in preparing for this year.
“I had (experience) back in my freshman year at Texas Tech, too, but pitching meaningful innings last year in a regional (at Clark-LeClair Stadium) gave me a lot of confidence,” said Colmore, a 2016 South Central High School graduate. “Now our job with all the new guys is to kind of help lead them because of all the experience we’ve had. We want to make it where when they get out on that mound, the game is lot slower to them and it could make it a lot easier for them.”
Colmore and Bridges are both in line for bullpen innings. Colmore also has the ability to be stretched into a starter if needed.
“I have a ton of respect for fifth-year seniors, because I was a fifth-year senior (at ECU),” said Pirate sixth-year head Cliff Godwin, who hired a new pitching coach during the offseason in Jason Dietrich from Oregon. “You have been here longer than anybody else. Bridges has handled adversity really well, has been a great teammate and he looks great. Cam took a while to kind of feel like he could pitch at this level and really have a major impact, but he just looks the part (now).”
Barber’s value comes in his versatility. He’s not a natural catcher and will likely not play that position this season, but Godwin said it would be neat if the Apopka, Fla., native was able to play all nine positions because he is comfortable everywhere else in the infield and has outfield experience.
Smith will open the season in the Saturday starting role as part of a veteran pitching staff that took a hit with a preseason practice finger injury to projected Friday starter Gavin Williams, but the setback is not expected to be a long-term injury.
The Pirates’ lead starters last season on a team that finished 47-18 and won the Greenville Regional were Agnos (17 starts), Smith (15) and Kuchmaner (14). The team ERA was 3.96.
“You can never have too much pitching,” Godwin said. “There is the opportunity for guys to get out there and compete. ... There is a lot of talent and we are deeper on the mound than we have ever been.”
Smith has sustained a role that undoubtedly will be important again for the Pirates, especially early in the season as they integrate new arms.
“I feel like Tyler Smith has really matured a ton since last year, and he was never an immature kid,” Godwin said. “The draft and putting external pressure on himself I think affected him last year, and he still took the ball almost every weekend even when his numbers weren’t great and he gave us a chance to win every time he went out there. It just wasn’t as consistent as his sophomore year. ... One thing is he has worked and his breaking ball is a lot better, so it’s a swing-and-miss pitch now.”