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View from the 'ville
Thursday, May 17, 2007

By Al Myatt

Baseball guru high on Pirates' possibilities

By Al Myatt
All rights reserved.

No less an authority than John Manuel of Baseball America figures that East Carolina's absence from the NCAA Tournament will end after one season.

Pirates coach Billy Godwin has been pleased with his club's performance, especially when unforeseen circumstances which ECU has dealt with this season are factored in.

"East Carolina is the only team from Conference USA, other than Rice, that can feel like they're in," Manuel said during a break between issues from the authoritative Durham-based publication. "They've got the No. 21 RPI according to what was released (Wednesday). To me, they're in and they're a No. 2 seed."

ECI is 35-18 overall and currently holds second place in C-USA with a 13-7 league record going into the final regular season series in Birmingham this weekend.

"I'd say they even have an outside shot to host a regional if they want to submit a ridiculous bid, throw in a couple of wins over Rice on their way to winning the Conference USA tournament and sweep at UAB this weekend, which isn't easily done," Manuel said. "Brian Shoop (Blazers coach) does a great job.

"In the best case scenario, who's to say East Carolina can't earn a No. 1 seed and be a regional host.? If they could beat Rice, which has the No. 1 RPI, a couple of times — I think that could propel them to a No. 1 seed."

The Owls swept ECU in Greenville in a 3-game series April 6-8. The Pirates came progressively closer, losing 4-0, 9-6 and 8-6 to Rice during the course of the weekend.

"More realistic, I think they're a two seed and they're probably going to Chapel Hill," Manuel said.

The bad news about that projection is that the Pirates have not fared well against the Tar Heels this season. North Carolina won 10-0 at home in Chapel Hill on April 24 and 5-1 in Greenville on May 9.

"North Carolina beat Georgia Tech last weekend, which was pretty good for UNC," Manuel continued. "In the RPI, they're eight positions ahead of UVa, although they're virtually tied in the ACC standings."

The Tar Heels are 18-9 in the ACC and Virginia is a half-game behind in the Coastal Division with a 17-9 league record.

"Carolina goes to Maryland this weekend," Manuel noted. "Assuming North Carolina wins that series, I think they're a No. 1 seed for a regional and probably a top eight national seed. It looks likely ECU would play there (in Chapel Hill).

"ECU came back after losing the series to Southern Miss and they swept Houston. That kind of got them where they are. Southern Miss is playing Houston this week. You figure the winner is in (the NCAA Tournament) and that the loser is on the bubble.

"The league (C-USA) is kind of down. Houston and Memphis lose to Marshall. That indicates the league is kind of down."

Conference USA may be down but ECU is up, especially compared to the Pirates' performance in Godwin's first season in 2006. The team was 33-26 overall last season, including a dismal 4-15 on the road, and 10-14 in the conference (sixth).

East Carolina is a much more respectable 7-7 on the road this season.

"I feel good about our postseason chances," Godwin said. "We have some meat on our bone and we need to play well here at the end, which I think this crowd will do.

"I feel really good about the NCAA Tournament. At the beginning of the year, with the schedule we've played — and a couple of things that have happened like Jeff Ostrander, who was our second starter, pitching only 17 innings, and we lose one of our top outfielders, Trent Ashcraft — that we would be where we are, I believe I would have jumped all over that."

Hosting the C-USA Tournament next week is a situation that should be advantageous for ECU, which is 28-11 this season at Clark-LeClair Stadium.

"Very few teams in our league have a winning record on the road," said the ECU coach. "Somebody asked me about home field advantage. That right there kind of says enough in itself.

"Anytime you can have an event like a conference tournament or a regional at home, it's always a tremendous advantage because the kids get to sleep in their own beds. They don't break their rhythm, their routine. Then you have the advantage of having your fans. At East Carolina, that's a huge advantage for us.

"It's like the LeClair Classic but you have twice as many teams so you just double that. Not only did we have great games, but the other games were great games. It's going to be an opportunity for our fans to be exposed to some great baseball for four or five days."

In the only previous C-USA Tournament hosted by ECU in 2002 at Grainger Stadium in Kinston, the Pirates went 4-0 to the title after finishing sixth in the league's regular season standings. That was with the motivation of stricken coach Keith LeClair watching from a van parked down the right field line.

Like Manuel, Godwin isn't ruling out the possibility that the Pirates could host an NCAA regional.

"I think there's still that chance," Godwin said recently. "There's still baseball left to be played. Absolutely. A lot of it depends on how our season ends up finishing and what happens to the other teams. I wouldn't totally rule it out if we weren't a one seed. You've seen that at times when a team gets a one seed and doesn't have the facility to host.

"Then they'll turn to the best option in that region or area."

The Pirates themselves were in that situation in 1999 when they played in a regional hosted by LSU with ECU on the road as a No. 1 seed.

Despite some personnel adversities, the Pirates have adapted well this season.

"If you're looking at our pitching, Josh Dowdy has certainly stepped in on the weekend and done a great job," Godwin said. "He hasn't had a lot of decisions. He's stepped into that Sunday role when we moved Dustin (Sasser) to Saturday. He's given us the opportunity to compete in every game. He's leading our starters in earned run average (2.81).

"Jeff Ostrander is getting stronger and stronger and we feel like he'll be full force by the time the conference tournament gets here.

"Ryan Tousleyhas had a good year for us. He's leading the team in home runs (10). Harrison Eldridge (.297, 5 HR's) has had a good year."

Godwin is hopeful that shortstop Dale Mollenhauer (.329) will progress in his rehabilitation to the point that he will be able to play in the conference tournament.

ECU has never lost a C-USA Tournament game as the host.

"We want to keep that trend going," Godwin said. "I don't know all the history but Rice has hosted and won it. Typically the teams that host regionals and super regionals are the teams that get to Omaha, so that tells you what home field advantage means in the postseason."

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05/17/2007 02:25:14 AM


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