With Friday’s 8-6 win at Rip Griffin Park packed with Texas Tech fans wearing red, Travis Watkins and the red-hot East Carolina baseball team are the closest they have ever been to Omaha and the College World Series.
In Game 1 of their best-of-3 NCAA super regional series, a big inning by the underdog Pirates, who were swept in super regionals in 2001, ’04 and ’09, led the way and it featured a big home run to left field by Travis Watkins. Sound familiar?
Watkins, the hero last week at the Charlottesville Regional with a walk-off homer to stun defending national champion Virginia, carried a ball in the top of the fifth over the wall in the left field corner for a grand slam to make it 5-2 Pirates after Texas Tech earlier held two separate one-run leads. Garrett Brooks stole home as part of a double steal, and East Carolina (38-21-1) took a 6-2 edge into the bottom of the fifth.
Watkins hit a two-run homer in the sixth – also to left field – for an 8-3 advantage for an ECU team that was the No. 3 seed in Charlottesville.
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“Just like in Charlottesville, I wasn’t trying to hit a home run,” Watkins said of his grand slam. “I caught it out in front. The past few days I haven’t been able to get them out in batting practice and the wind has been howling in, but that’s not what we’re worried about. It’s about going out and winning pitches, hitting the ball hard and having quality at-bats, and in the end, it will work out.”
The Red Raiders, the No. 5 national seed, got a three-run home run by Tyler Neslony in the seventh to cut it to 8-6. Freshman Sam Lanier gave up the homer, but he struck out the next batter and fellow freshman Matt Bridges came in and struck out three straight en route to a six-strikeout, no-hit performance in 2 2/3 innings for his second save.
Watkins, the Pirates’ junior catcher, hit three home runs during ECU’s first 56 games. He has four homers and 11 RBIs in four NCAA contests.
“Obviously Travis had a big day offensively, but I thought we held our poise when they were coming back,” second-year ECU coach Cliff Godwin said. “They are the best offense we faced this year and no lead is safe, but it was two good teams going at it tonight.”
Texas Tech (44-18) used three pitchers in the top of the fifth. ECU sent 10 batters to the plate during the five-run rally that reversed momentum, gave ace pitcher Evan Kruczynski breathing room and took steam away from most of the stadium record crowd of 4,817.
Kruczynski (8-1) went 5 2/3 innings, working around six hits and five walks to allow three runs. He struck out six in a gutsy 109-pitch effort.
The Pirates’ 28 NCAA appearances are the most among clubs that have never made it to Omaha. That can change Saturday if they beat the Red Raiders again, which would improve them to 5-0 in this NCAA tournament.
“Winning one (super regional) game now is a big deal for East Carolina,” Godwin said. “We’ll enjoy it for an hour or two, but it’s a quick turnaround. … I’m happy for all the guys who ever played in super regionals at East Carolina that we won a game, but that doesn’t mean anything.
“We’re playing at Texas Tech and they have a really good team. It’s going to take our best effort to be able to squeak another one out of here.”
Texas Tech starter Davis Martin (9-1) gave up nine hits and six runs – five earned – in 4 1/3 frames.
The Raiders, who led 2-1 after a solo homer in the bottom of the fourth, have lost consecutive games four times this season.