It is game week for East Carolina University baseball in Greenville, North Carolina. After what seemed like a long off-season, Feb. 14 will usher in a new season for the Pirates, head coach Cliff Godwin’s sixth with the program.
“It kind of seems surreal to be honest with you,” Godwin said. “Obviously we have known Feb. 14 is Opening Day but really just trying to have a good practice today (Tuesday), have a good practice tomorrow (Wednesday), have a good practice Thursday and then let Friday just happen.”
A team fresh off a Regional win in its home ballpark and a subsequent Super Regional berth, new faces have been the storyline throughout the course of the fall and spring. All told, Godwin and the Pirates welcomed 18 freshman or junior college transfers to the roster after sending seven players to major league franchises last summer.
With most of that newness set to show up in the bullpen, the Pirates are poised to return an experienced, battle-tested starting rotation. At his team’s media day in late-January, Godwin said if the season started tomorrow, junior right-handed pitcher Gavin Williams would be his Opening Day starter against William & Mary.
Fast forward to now, and Williams is set to begin the season on the shelf after suffering a finger injury on his pitching hand in practice. Godwin confirmed on Tuesday that the right-hander will miss opening weekend altogether and undergo an X-ray this week.
Unfortunately for the Pirates, the injury bug did not stop biting there. Junior left-handed pitcher Jake Kuchmaner, the only ECU player to throw a perfect game, has been dealing with shoulder soreness for the majority of the spring. On Sunday, the southpaw tossed an inning during intrasquad scrimmages and is on track to throw again this coming Sunday against the Tribe.
Nevertheless, Godwin said Tuesday that his left-hander will be limited to two and at most three innings as he continues to work his way back from injury.
While injuries are never ideal, the Pirates have built in experienced depth that is slated to be put to the test. In Williams’ and Kuchmaner’s stead, junior left-handed pitcher/first baseman Alec Burleson will “most likely” get the start on Opening Day, according to Godwin.
“We’ve prepared him like a starter so that was the plan to prepare him like a starter through the preseason,” Godwin said. “He didn’t pitch in the fall just in case something like this happened and, of course, you prepare for the worst and sometimes you get it.”
Burleson, who is a top two-way player in the country, has held every conceivable role for the Pirates during his tenure with the program. Last season, the southpaw pitched to a 6-2 record with a 3.28 ERA across 60.1 innings.
In 24 appearances on the mound, Burleson started nine times and saved a team-high five games while racking up 68 strikeouts and holding opposing batters to a .246 batting average.
“I’ve been in a lot of roles here,” Burleson said. “Out of the bullpen, closing, starting, it’s nothing new for me. There’s obviously some nerves because it’s Opening Day but there’s no more nerves because I’ve done it before. Just going to go out there and give my team the best chance to win.”
While his numbers on the mound last year were impressive, Burleson was nearly unstoppable at the plate. Across 246 at-bats, the preseason All-American slashed .370/.399/.573 with nine home runs and 61 RBI, filling the stat sheet in almost every category.
After completing a bullpen on Tuesday, Burleson said he is still working to fine-tune some of his secondary offerings and just get the feel back after not pitching during fall scrimmages. While he said it was not his best bullpen, the lefty said he is still ready to take the mound on Friday afternoon.
Behind Burleson, the Pirates have lined up senior right-handed pitcher Tyler Smith. While last year did not transpire in a favorable way for Smith, he is back for his fourth and final collegiate season and looking to once again become a solid contributor for ECU.
“I feel like Tyler Smith has really matured a ton since last year,” Godwin said. “He’s never been an immature kid, but external factors like draft and putting external pressure on yourself I think affected him last year.”
In his first draft eligible season, the right-hander posted a 5.57 ERA across 74.1 innings despite working to a 7-1 record. His .293 opponent batting average came as a result of allowing 86 hits, as he relied heavily on being a contact-oriented pitcher.
This off-season, however, new Pirate pitching coach Jason Dietrich has worked with Smith on his breaking ball which, according to Godwin, has transformed into more of a swing-and-miss pitch.
After losing Jake Agnos to the New York Yankees in the fourth round of the Major League Baseball first year player draft last summer, there was a void to be filled. Second in the American Athletic Conference in ERA and first in both innings pitched and strikeouts, Agnos was a work-horse, helping guide ECU to a 47-18 record.
Now gone, it will be up to Burleson to set the tone on Friday night and Smith and Kuchmaner to maintain that tone throughout the weekend. For the sinker-balling Smith, getting the baseball on the ground will be key for a guy who allowed 17 doubles in 2019.
When Williams returns, the hope is his command issues will be under control. Across 49.1 innings last year, the right-hander walked 23 guys despite striking out 56 and holding batters to a .225 batting average. With added command, there is little doubt Williams can rack up the punch outs, but it will be important for him to keep his pitch count down in order to work deep into ball games.
Just a day away from Opening Day, excitement levels around Pirate baseball are steadily rising despite injuries that will hamper the team in the early-going.
“I’m sure they’re super excited not to practice anymore and actually play somebody different,” Godwin said. “That’s the neat thing about practice is you go out there and prepare yourself. We try to put a ton of pressure on them in practice so then the games are somewhat less hard to deal with. We try to make the games easier than practice.”
On Feb. 14 at 4 p.m. against William & Mary, fans and spectators will see if that preparation has readied this team for another long, enduring season.