An excellent season came to a close for
East Carolina last weekend in Chapel Hill as North Carolina claimed a
berth in the College World Series for the fourth straight season.
The Tar Heels topped the Pirates
9-3 on Sunday at
renovated Boshamer Stadium after a
10-1 win on Saturday as
right-handers Alex White and Adam Warren kept the ECU bats about as
quiet as they have been all season in the best-of-three super regional.
In addition to very effective starting
pitching, the Heels benefitted from big sixth innings each day. ECU's
offensive highlights were a solo home run by Brandon Henderson on
Saturday, which provided a short-lived 1-0 advantage, and three runs on
Sunday after North Carolina had taken an 8-0 lead.
There are several schools of thought as
to why the Pirates struggled to score runs with a lineup in which each
batter was hitting .310 or better. First of all, you have to credit
White and Warren for long and strong efforts.
"(The difference in this series was)
just the way their pitchers came out and pitched," said Pirates senior
second baseman Ryan Wood. "Warren ... was real impressive. He was
hitting his spots, and if he missed, he was missing a couple of balls
off, a couple of inches off the plate, especially his fastball.
"He could locate his breaking ball for
a strike and put it where he wanted to."
ECU freshman right-hander Kevin Brandt
had shut out North Carolina for 8 1/3 innings in Greenville in a 4-0
Pirates win on April 22 but indicated that the Tar Heels were more
aggressive at the plate when he saw them last Sunday.
"They came out ready to hit," Brandt
said. "I just tried to pitch the same. I don't know if they changed
their game plan, but they came out hitting. I'm always trying to get a
first-pitch strike. I guess they were seeing the ball and hitting the
ball on the first-pitch strike, knowing it was coming."
North Carolina coach Mike Fox said the
team's offensive strategy throughout the season has been to set the
table for Dustin Ackley and Kyle Seager, but the Tar Heels hardly looked
like a two-man team against the Pirates. They showed the type of balance
throughout the lineup that had typically characterized ECU during the
Winning experience was another factor
in North Carolina's favor. Its seniors were playing in their fourth
super regional and they've won all four.
"I always like coming to these
(postgame news conferences with my shoes and socks wet," said Fox in
reference to the postgame dousing he received. " ... I just can't
describe the ride we've been on."
The Tar Heels have a lot of big game
experience in their program and also had the advantage of playing at
home as the No. 4 national seed. The super regional drew 4,316 on
Saturday, a Boshamer Stadium record, and 4,271 on Sunday, the second
largest crowd at the facility.
Roughly 80 percent of the fans appeared
to be wearing Carolina blue, a significant home field advantage. The
Pirates were able to feed off of their fan base during a run through the
losers' bracket in the regional in Greenville. The season series between
East Carolina and North Carolina went to the team playing on its home
turf in each of the four games.
ECU played five games in three days and
spent significantly more emotion and physical energy in getting to the
super regional than the Tar Heels did. The adrenaline simply wasn't
flowing to the same degree for the Pirates in Chapel Hill.
In order to become a national seed in
the NCAA Tournament and enjoy the advantages of playing at home in a
super regional, ECU is going to have to become the dominant team in
Conference USA, a niche where the Rice Owls have been perched for most
of this decade.
The Pirates have some holes to fill as
they move forward and seek to continue the improvement that has
characterized Billy Godwin's four-year tenure as head coach.
ECU missed the NCAA Tournament for the
only time in the last 11 seasons in Godwin's first year in 2006. The
Pirates lost out in a regional in Chapel Hill in 2007. They went to the
regional final at Coastal Carolina in 2008 and won their first regional
in Greenville in dramatic fashion in 2009.
Among the seniors who have helped
produce that climb are reliever Bailey Daniels, first baseman Henderson,
third baseman Drew Schieber, second baseman Wood and left fielder
Right fielder Devin Harris,
right-handed pitcher Chris Heston and designated hitter Kyle Roller will
all weigh options from this week's major league draft against playing
their senior seasons for ECU.
The MLB draft also cut a swath through
the Pirates' signing class. Slugger Mike Trout was a first round choice,
the 25th pick overall by the Los Angeles Angels, and would be turning
down big bucks to enroll in Greenville. Nick McBride was a fifth round
pick, Walker Gurley went in the 13th round and John Wooten was selected
in the 20th round.
Outfielder Austin Homan showed promise
as a hitter in the postseason and the Pirates will return the bulk of
their pitching staff.
Catcher Jared Avchen, infielder Dustin
Harrington and center fielder Trent Whitehead lead the returning
position players from a 46-20 club that won the C-USA regular-season
"We've got a lot of our pitchers who
will be back," Godwin said. "That*s one of the things I have tried to
emphasize in my tenure at East Carolina — that we have to roll guys out
there to give us a shot. You see how important those guys are that went
out there for North Carolina ..., and I think we*re getting there. We
have to keep grinding and keep putting a quality product on the mound.
"That*s the next step, but I think some
of the experiences like this, sometimes I say that a player*s failure is
his best teacher. It hurts, it stings, but I think it's an important
part of growing and maturing as a team and as a program."