ECU Pirates baseball back on top

After a disastrous 2017, ECU has returned to form

ECU junior Chris Holba throws a pitch during a game earlier this season. (ECU athletics photo / Rob Goldberg Jr.)

GREENVILLE — Baseball has a way of evening things out.

For every blistering line drive scorched right at a fielder, there’s a ground ball with eyes that finds a way to sneak through for a base hit. For every perfectly placed fastball on the outside corner that gets sent into the seats for a home run, there’s a hanging curve that fools the hitter into swinging and missing.


And for each season in which everything that can possibly go wrong does go wrong, there will eventually be another in which all the breaks seem to fall the right way.

East Carolina had one of those nightmare experiences in 2017. It was a comedy of errors marred by injuries to several key players and a 10-game losing streak to start the American Athletic Conference schedule that ultimately cost the preseason league favorites a trip to the NCAA tournament.

But instead of waiting for the baseball gods to bring things full circle and reward them with good fortune, the Pirates have gone out and made their own luck by using last season’s disappointment as the fuel for a quick rise back into the national polls.

“It’s been motivation for everybody that was a part of it,” coach Cliff Godwin said. “Last year was a fluke, and we knew it. But it made us better. When you go through what we went through last year, it makes you tougher.”

ECU gave an early glimpse of that newfound grit by winning two of three from in-state rival North Carolina, including a 12-0 whitewash of the Tar Heels in Chapel Hill in the decisive third game.

The Pirates then bounced back from opening game losses to win each of its first two AAC series against conference heavyweights Central Florida and Wichita State, before winning four games in a five-day stretch — with a cross-country trip to Washington sandwiched in between.

Although ECU lost its first weekend series of the season to South Florida this week, dropping from No. 8 to No. 11 in the Baseball America national rankings, it bounced right back with an impressive 9-2 win at the new No. 8, Duke on Tuesday, to improve to 27-9 on the season.

“This team is just special,” said junior outfielder Dwanya Williams-Sutton, who is back in the lineup after missing 15 games with a wrist injury. “We just love the game and try to have fun. We have a bunch of confidence.”

As much confidence and motivation as the Pirates have going for them, there’s also plenty of talent to go around.

It’s anchored by a pitching staff featuring four strong arms all capable of being a featured Friday night starter.

Junior Chris Holba, who had his own nightmare in 2017 when he was hit in the face with a line drive, has been the best of the bunch at 8-0 with a 1.52 earned run average. But sophomores Tyler Smith, Trey Benton and Jake Agnos have been nearly as good while helping ECU rank among the nation’s ERA leaders.

“No matter who’s throwing, on any day of the week,” Holba said after going six strong innings in Friday’s 15-2 win against USF, “they’re going to give us a good chance to win.”

It doesn’t hurt that Godwin has put together a lineup so balanced and so strong that 11 different players contributed at least one hit to Friday’s 15-run, 17-hit outburst.

Leadoff man Bryant Packard has been the hottest of those hitters lately, leading the team with a .402 batting average bolstered by a 13-game hitting streak in which he’s hit seven homers and driven in 17 runs.

Packard is one of several sophomores that have taken over increased roles from this season and are carrying the Pirates to heights that their older teammates couldn’t a year ago. The group also includes catcher Jake Washer (.343, five homers, 20 RBI) and first baseman Spencer Brickhouse (.280, four homers, 23 RBI).

Juniors Brady Lloyd (.386), Williams-Sutton when he’s healthy (.325) and junior college transfer Connor Litton (.299, seven home runs) have also made major contributions to an offense that averages better than six runs per game.

“Last year we had captains,” Packard said. “But this year I think all 35 guys are captains because everybody is up in that leadership role and everybody has bought in.”

In doing so, the Pirates have created a loose but productive chemistry in which the players both encourage and challenge each other to produce a much more satisfying result than the disappointment of a year ago.

“We go out there every day and just compete at the plate,” Williams-Sutton said. “Our pitchers aren’t scared to dominate, and our defense has been phenomenal. We’ve become very resilient. Hopefully that will take us a long way this year.”