East Carolina, which finished last in the American Athletic Conference in the regular season, is one win away from a conference championship and an unlikely trip to NCAA regionals.
The eighth-seeded Pirates (32-27) got a 4-0 win to eliminate top-seeded Central Florida (40-20) on Saturday at Spectrum Field, their third straight tournament win over an opponent that swept them in the regular season.
ECU advances to Sunday’s championship (noon, ESPNews) against second-seeded Houston, which beat UConn 13-3 on Saturday. Houston also swept its three games against ECU in April.
“It’s a new season,” said Pirates coach Cliff Godwin, who showed his team the ESPN “30 for 30” documentary on the 1983 N.C. State men’s basketball team, “Survive and Advance,” to motivate his team. “There’s a lot of parallels to their team. ... We talked about being in the present moment, just to be where your feet are and play with toughness. I think they’ve done that this week.”
The Pirates, who won a conference crown on the same field two years ago, got seven shutout innings from freshman left-hander Jake Agnos, and solo home runs from Travis Watkins and Spencer Brickhouse among their four hits.
“Just don’t act like a freshman and that’s what I did,” said Agnos (3-3), who kept the Pirates’ bullpen rested for Sunday’s final. “I didn’t hold back and my defense definitely had my back. That’s the main thing; they made big plays and kept it zeros, so I have to give credit to them.”
Agnos pitched well against UCF in the regular season, but the Pirates’ bullpen turned a 7-1 lead into an 8-7 loss in 11 innings. There was no such letdown this time. Agnos took a one-hitter into the seventh, and after a leadoff single there, struck out the side to finish his last inning. Another freshman, Tyler Smith, got four outs and sophomore Matt Bridges the last two to close out the win.
ECU right fielder Drew Henrickson had quite a sixth inning: a leaping grab at the wall to rob a home run, then a pop fly lost in the sun to put a runner to second, then another leaping grab at the warning track and a quick throw in for an inning-ending double play at third base.
A half-inning later, UCF right fielder Eli Putnam was staring into the same sun and lost a two-out line drive from Charlie Yorgen for a three-base error, allowing a third run to score for ECU. Yorgen then scored on an RBI single by Watkins to make it 4-0.
ECU beat the Knights for the second time in four days, after a 14-3 win in the tournament opener Wednesday. ECU then rallied to beat South Florida on Thursday on a squeeze bunt in the bottom of the ninth, setting up Saturday’s win.
ECU will start senior left-hander Evan Kruczynski (4-2, 4.47 ERA) on Sunday against Houston.