What's behind the ECU Pirates' exceptional baseball season so far?
Moments after East Carolina had won the American Athletic Conference baseball championship, Pirates coach Cliff Godwin was being interviewed on the field in Clearwater, Florida.
Godwin talked about the Pirates’ pitching. He talked about his team’s toughness, and the adversity faced this season with injuries. He talked about gutting out a 4-3 victory over UConn in the AAC title game.
Hali Oughton of the American Digital Network then asked about Godwin's message to ECU fans with the NCAA Tournament on the horizon.
“Pirate Nation, we’ll see you in Greenville next week, baby!” Godwin shouted into the camera before bolting to join the celebration.
And the NCAA has come to Greenville. The Pirates (43-16) are the No. 1 seed in the Greenville Regional at Clark-LeClair Stadium and open play Friday at 7 p.m. against fourth-seeded UNC-Wilmington (37-21) after second-seeded South Carolina (33-24) and third seed Ohio State (36-22) meet at 2 p.m.
The Pirates have had a lot of baseball success through the years and especially this season, winning two of three games against North Carolina, the No. 6 national seed in the NCAA Tournament. ECU also beat Duke, a No. 2 seed this week at the Athens (Ga.) NCAA Regional.
Does ECU have the kind of team that can make it to the College World Series? That's what the Pirates are playing for. Then again, so are 63 other teams.
Here are some things to know about the Pirates heading into the regional:
Jump-starting the offense
Sophomore first baseman/outfielder Bryant Packard is the guy who consistently gets the Pirates' offense revved up, a reason the Greenville native was chosen the 2018 AAC player of the year and an All-American.
The Pirates’ leadoff batter is hitting .403, seventh-best nationally, and had a hit in a school-record 32 consecutive games. He has power with 14 homers and a .680 slugging percentage, leading the Pirates in nine offensive categories including RBIs (50).
Packard has had some back issues and missed a game in the AAC tournament, but played in the championship game and is not expected to be limited this week in the regional.
Packard on Thursday received a few more accolades: He was named a first-team All-American by Baseball America and a second-teamer by Collegiate Baseball.
Don’t forget Brickhouse
Spencer Brickhouse (how’s that for a baseball name) was named the most outstanding player in the AAC tournament, hitting . 500 (10-for-20) and has 10 homers and 48 RBIs this season.
In the Pirates’ May 9 game against UNCW in Wilmington, it was Brickhouse, a sophomore first baseman/designated hitter from Zebulon, whose two-run triple spurred a five-run fifth inning that wiped out a 3-0 UNCW lead. ECU won 5-4.
Smith’s tired arm a problem?
One persistent concern for the Pirates in the regional — and beyond, if they advance — is the arm strength of sophomore pitcher Tyler Smith, who is 7-1 with a 1.85 earned-run average.
The righthander has been out for three weeks because of the arm soreness but could be used in a relief role this week.
Speaking of bullpens …
ECU has dependable throwers out of the pen. Lefty Ryan Ross has made 31 appearances this season and right-hander Davis Kirkpatrick has made 27.
Kirkpatrick, who has an 0.76 ERA, was on the mound when the Pirates finished off the AAC championship game. He also earned the save when the Pirates topped UNCW in Wilmington this season.
Jake Agnos, who started the AAC title game and had nine strikeouts, and Trey Benton add depth to the pen, and if the regional is extended for ECU could be starting options.
Protecting a lead
Among all the team stats are these: ECU is 36-0 when leading after six innings, 37-0 when leading after seven and 40-1 when leading after eight. That’s getting it done.
Nothing new for ECU
The Pirates, hardly newcomers to the NCAA baseball tournament, will be making their 29th regional appearance and the third in four years under Godwin.
The Pirates also have a little history with each of the other three teams. ECU and UNC-Wilmington faced off in a home-and-home this season, ECU winning April 3 in Greenville (6-4) and May 9 in Wilmington (5-4.)
ECU and South Carolina played in the 2009 Greenville Regional and opened the 2010 season against South Carolina in Greenville. Ohio State and ECU played in the 2014 LeClair Classic in Greenville.
The Pirates are 20-10 at home this season.
There’s going to be a party
There will be baseball but there also will be a baseball version of the Pirate Game Day Tailgate on Saturday.
The ECU Alumni Association and Pirate Club will hold the tailgate at Johnson Stadium 2 1/2 hours before the first pitch near Clark-LeClair Stadium. And, yes, there will be music.