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Observations and Punditry
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Woody's Ramblings
Monday, February 14, 2010

By Woody Peele

ECU PIRATES 2011 BASEBALL PREVIEW

Fifty years later, Bucs still have big goals

By Woody Peele
©2011 Bonesville.net
All rights reserved.

Billy Godwin
John Wooten
Corey Thompson
Seth Maness
Zach Woods
Zach Wright
Trent Whitehead
Austin Homan
(ECU SID images)

For some years now, the motivational call for East Carolina baseball has been “Omaha.”

So far, the Pirates haven’t made it, although they’ve come close a couple of times. And once again, the team will be aiming for that trip to the magical kingdom in Nebraska.

They’ll get a little more inspiration this year as they celebrate the 50th anniversary of their only national title. Way back in 1961, East Carolina’s baseball team, under the tutelage of Jim Mallory, won the NAIA national championship.

The surviving members of that team have been invited to attend the semi-centennial celebration of their milestone achievement during Lettermen’s Weekend when the Pirates host Southern Miss.

[Article continues below picture)

Baseball Bucs of 1961

East Carolina College's 1961 NAIA national championship team. Jim Mallory, coach of the team, is back row, middle. (Joyner Library archive image)

Coach Bill Godwin has been working on bringing those members back to campus where things have definitely changed since they wore the ECC uniform. But the coach doesn’t think that will be a key motivational factor for the 2011 squad.

“Our goal has always been to go to Omaha,” Godwin said in the final days before getting the 2011 season underway with a three-game stand against Youngstown State on Friday. “You’ve got to be good enough to get in and hopefully host (a regional/super regional) and be fortunate enough to play well at the right time — peak at the right time.”

As usual, Rice is the favorite to win the Conference USA title, but Godwin believes his team has a good chance to take the crown, just as it did two years ago.

“Rice has certainly, well, been Rice every year,” Godwin said. “We won two years ago, but you have to do it on a consistent basis like they’ve been doing to be the pick.”

One thing all of the NCAA teams are going to have to do this year is learn to play with new bats.

“There is a difference,” the coach said of the bats that will replace the composite bats used in the last several years. “The ball comes off the bat at a different speed and it doesn’t travel as far.

“I like it, personally. It brings the game back to a pure version of baseball. When you have a three-run lead, you have a three-run lead. You’re going to have to hit and earn it. I don’t think we’ll get beat by a 155-pound second baseman in the ninth inning who gets out on his front foot and hits it out.”

Because of this, the Pirates have put a lot of emphasis on moving the runners using the bunt or hitting behind the runners.

Godwin added that the team has had a lot of situational hitting and that the fans are going to see that magnified this season.

“We’re not striking out any more (than a year ago) and I don’t think that will change,” Godwin said. “In practice, our batting average is down about 20 points, but it’s hard to tell since that’s been in intra-squad play (against Pirate pitching).

Godwin noted that he’s excited about the mound staff.

“I lean toward thinking the pitchers are good and that our hitters are good, too,” he said.

But the power hitting of the past may become only a memory. There’ll still be homers, but not at the pace seen in recent years.

“I’ve talked with several coaches and there seems to be little bit of a consensus that the new home run level will be around 50 instead of 100 (for a team’s season),” said Godwin.

The coach believes that five or six runs for his club will give the Pirates a chance to win 75 to 80 percent of their games.

“Every inning, we’re going to try and get to that number,” he said. “We’re not going to sit back and try to get that homer. We’ll try to move the runners but we don’t want to happy just to move them over on a weak grounder but to drive the ball and bring them in.”

Running on the bases will also be emphasized.

“A couple of years ago, we stole 101 bases,” Godwin said, “and our speed is as good as that team. But it comes down to how well the other team holds runners, how quickly their pitchers are to get the ball to the plate and how good the catcher is. More emphasis is going to be controlling the base runners.”

Godwin said that sending a runner comes down to a math equation.

“Most catchers throw now in about 2.0 (seconds),” he said. “I know what every guy can do to steal second. What I have to do is time the pitcher and see how quickly the catcher throws the ball to second between innings.

“If I have a guy who is 7.0, that comes down to about 3.5 between bases. If a pitcher is 1.3 and the catcher is 2.0 and accurately getting the ball to second, that’s about 3.3 and is usually not a good situation. That’s where hitting behind the runner takes over.”

Last year, the Pirates suffered through a horrible 108 errors, most of them in the middle infield. So an emphasis in recruiting was in that area.

“We went out and brought in four quality middle infielders,” Godwin said. “Two freshmen and two junior college. And they’re still battling it out.”

Freshman Drew Reynolds has a shot at playing either shortstop or third base. The other frosh, Jack Reinheimer, has to be more consistent.

“He can make some unbelievable plays,” Godwin said, “but his consistence level must improve.”

Tim Younger, one of the junior college transfers (St. Petersburg College), has been the most consistent while Michael Ussery (Ohlone Junior College) could be the second baseman, again appearing consistent at that spot.

The big plus is the return of John Wooten (So., .311, 9 HR, 40 RBI) at first base and Corey Thompson (Jr., .377, 8 HR, 54 RBI) at third base, protecting the corners. Wooten, however, might end up in left field, depending on how some of the other newcomers do.

“I know John and Corey will be in our lineup,” Godwin said. “But we have to figure out where they’ll best fit into our lineup.”

The coach added that a number of players are likely to see both starting and relief work in the early season games.

Like the two corner infielders, the pitching corps will be led by two stalwarts. Seth Maness (Sr., RH, 10-3, 4.17 ERA) and Zach Woods (Sr., RH, 8-4, 4.50 ERA) return as starters for the Pirates. But they’re also being pressed.

“There are about six pitchers battling for the four or five starting positions,” Godwin said. “Maness and Woods will be out there on Friday and Saturday, but we still don’t know who’ll be there Sunday.”

Among the group who have a shot at it will be Brad Mincey (Sr., RH, 3-1, 5.83), Kevin Brandt (Jr., LH, 3-7, 5.21), Shawn Armstrong (So., RH, 0-2, 4.30), and Mike Wright (Jr., RH, 2-2, 6.94).

The latter two made big jumps in the fall and in preseason, Godwin said, “but they still have to go out there when the lights and the scoreboard go on and show what they’ve shown in preseason.”

Seth Simmons (Sr., RH, 2-5, 4.39, 9 saves) is likely to be the closer once again, but Jake Harris (So., LH, 2-0, 4.84) and sidearmer Drew Reynolds (Fr., LH) are also pushing for the job.

Overall, Godwin is looking for a strong bullpen from these hurlers and others.

Zach Wright (Jr., .265, 14 HR, 47 RBI) is the leader for the catching position, having started 40 games last season.

“He’s poised to be a guy who can play 80 percent of our games,” Godwin said.

The coach has also been impressed by some newcomers.

“Josh Lovick (Fr.), I like a lot," said Godwin. "He’s a converted catcher we saw catch (in high school). Will Connerley (Fr.) is another good kid. With the speed of the game, the most demanding position is behind the plate.”

Godwin said that the outfield probably has the most depth since he’s been with the Pirates.

“It starts with Trent Whitehead (Sr., .331, 4 HR, 31 RBI), who is as good as any centerfielder I’ve had,” the coach said. “Phil Clark (So., .290, 2 HR, 40 RBI) and Chris Gosik (So., .246, 2 HR, 12 HR) are close. Both played a lot as freshmen and did well.”

The most exciting freshman, according to Godwin, is Ben Fultz.

“We may see him late in the games," he said. "Jon Holt is another freshman who is getting better and Jake Davis (So., .333) has shown a lot of promise on offense.”

Rounding out the offense will be the designated hitter position and the word is already out to watch for freshman Chase McDonald.

“He has a chance to play some at first base, too,” Godwin said. “He has a lot of athleticism for a guy weighing 260 pounds. People are comparing him to (former Pirate) Kyle Roller, but Kyle really didn’t start coming around until the middle of his second year. Chase could get there earlier.”

Austin Homan (Sr., .313, 1 HR, 13 RBI) could also take over the DH spot if McDonald needs more seasoning. Homan is wearing the No. 23 Keith LeClair jersey for the second straight year, a tribute to his leadership.

It will all boil down to how quickly the newcomers respond to the pressures of Division I college baseball and how the Pirates react to the new bats.

“If we can pound the zones, can run and have athleticism,” Godwin said, “we have a chance.”

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02/14/2011 04:12:31 AM
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