East Carolina baseball coach Cliff Godwin said he detected a big difference when his Pirates took the field Thursday for practice at Virginia’s Davenport Field ahead of Friday’s NCAA regional.
“I think you saw when they took the field they were a little more loose than they were last year (at Miami),” Godwin said. “The experience we had last year will help.”
The third-seeded Pirates (34-21-1) open the NCAA tournament in the Charlottesville Regional at 6 p.m. Friday against second-seeded Bryant (47-10), a former Division II power from Smithfield, R.I., that won the Northeast Conference championship.
Top-seeded Virginia (37-20) starts the proceedings with a 1 p.m. game against William & Mary (29-29), which beat top-seeded UNC Wilmington in back-to-back games to claim the Colonial Athletic Association tournament last weekend.
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The Charlottesville Regional winner will meet the winner of the Lubbock Regional, hosted by Texas Tech, in the super regionals next weekend.
This isn’t ECU’s first trip to Charlottesville this season. The Pirates took two of three from the reigning NCAA champions back in February, and the success helps foster that looser attitude Godwin observed.
In recalling that early-season series, Godwin said, “The first thing we talked about was UVa had beaten us nine times in a row,” he said. “As an ECU alum, I wanted to change that. But UVa is a much different team than they were three months ago. So are we. We’ll worry about Game 2 when we get there.”
“It’s an advantage that we’ve been here,” said junior catcher Travis Watkins, second on the team with a .314 average. “We’re used to the yard and such. But we need to play our game.
“We try to focus on us, play our best defense, get ahead of batters, throw strikes and put together quality at-bats.”
The Pirates will have their hands full with Bryant, which has been labeled one of the dark horses in the tournament.
“They have a really good No. 1 (pitcher) that we’ll face,” Godwin said of the Bulldogs’ sophomore right-hander James Karinchak (12-2, 2.04 ERA). “He’s got power stuff, 90-94 mph with a good breaking ball. Our goal is to try to get his pitch count up early and get to their bullpen.”
ECU will counter with its own ace, junior left-hander Evan Kruczynski (6-1, 1.99).
“The thing about Evan is he always has his good stuff,” Watkins said. “If his fastball doesn’t have life, he has his changeup and curve ball. He’s one of the best Friday starters in the country.”
Although Bryant might not be a household name in this part of the country, the Bulldogs are no stranger to the postseason. They made their NCAA tournament debut in 2013, and this will be their third bid in four years. They have never played any of the teams in the Charlottesville Regional but went 2-1 against teams in the NCAA field, beating Boston College and Rhode Island but losing to Connecticut.
“This is the culmination of a good season for us,” coach Steve Owens said. “We’ve played hard. We’ve been doing that all year. We haven’t lost back-to-back games all year, and we’re the only team in the nation to do that.”