On a more traditional October morning in Eastern Carolina temperature-wise, the East Carolina University baseball team took the field, continuing its second week of fall scrimmages on Saturday. Under veteran head coach Cliff Godwin, the Pirates are in the early stages of defending their 47-18 (20-4 AAC) record that culminated in a Super Regional berth, the second under Godwin.
Despite their sparkling .833 winning percentage this past spring and summer in conference play, the Pirates were decidedly outmatched by the No. 7 ranked University of Louisville in the Super Regional, scoring just one run over two games while allowing 26 to the Cardinals.
“It never ends like you want it to unless you’re holding up the National Championship trophy,” Godwin said after Saturday’s scrimmage. “Every single day our guys are out here and our staff is out here trying to get better and we’re just focusing on trying to have a little bit better practice tomorrow than we had today.”
Getting the team better everyday may be a little tougher for Godwin and the Pirates’ coaching staff this off-season considering the lack of experienced players currently on the roster. In the summer, seven Pirates were selected by MLB clubs during the first-year player draft, setting a school record and leaving a hole for the recruiting process to fill.
Bryant Packard, Spencer Brickhouse and Jake Washer accounted for 38 of the Pirates’ 71 home runs and hit than a third of ECU’s doubles last season. When the Pirates take the field in the spring, however, all three will be preparing to report to their respective minor league clubs, leaving Godwin and his staff to attempt to replace that production.
“We had a lot of guys that were in the program last year that watched those guys and then we’ve recruited very well,” Godwin said. “Coach (Jeff) Palumbo has done a great job recruiting guys and bringing those guys in. We have the talent, we just got to continue to educate them on how to play the game the right way and fundamentally be sound.”
This year’s crop of new players features 20 new players, including 12 pitchers, six position players and two, two-way players. As a group, that class ranks 40th in the country and is a testament to the Pirates’ success as a program over the last handful of years.
On Saturday, as the Pirates continued rolling through the second week of their fall scrimmages, a noticeable difference could be seen of the stands compared to last week. Prior to the scrimmage during infield practice, just about every throw and relay was crisp and executed to near perfection while the players not involved in the play encouraged their teammates.
Weaving an integral part in the scrimmage was some of the freshmen in the Pirates’ most recent recruiting class. Freshman left-handed pitcher Carson Whisenhunt looked sharp in his time on the mound while freshman catcher Justin Wilcoxen drove in two runs late in the scrimmage with an opposite double into the left-center field gap.
While some freshmen excelled in the eyes of the coaching staff and those in attendance, it was natural to see some struggles. A pair of freshmen pitchers, A.J. Wilson and Nate Nabholz, ran into some troubles for their respective teams and often suffered from a lack of throwing strikes.
On the field, the Pirates put on a defensive showcase, recording spectacular plays left and right. Sophomore infielder Connor Norby made a dive up to his right on a ground ball up the middle from his second base position and made a strong throw to first from his back-side to get the runner.
Both junior left-handed pitcher/first baseman Alec Burleson and junior left-handed pitcher Jake Kuchmaner joined Norby on the highlight reel by making fantastic defensive plays, but not at the positions you would believe. Playing left field, Burleson backed up on a line-drive and made a leaping catch over his head while Kuchmaner made a nifty diving play to his left at first base to rob the batter of extra bases.
“Today (Saturday) was our best scrimmage and it was our best scrimmage just because the pace of the pitchers was really good,” Godwin said. “They threw a lot of strikes early in the game. Gavin Williams was outstanding, Carson Wisenhunt, a freshman, pounded the zone. But our defense was unbelievable, had a lot of web gems defensively just because the pace of the guys getting the ball and throwing the ball over the plate was awesome.”
Williams, who is a junior, came out throwing gas on Saturday. The big right-handed touched 98 MPH on the radar gun and displayed, at times, a sharp breaking curveball that garnered a handful of swing-and-misses. The 20-year-old used his heater to strike out the side at one point on Saturday and was able to routinely blow the ball by hitters.
A previous draft pick by the Tampa Bay Rays out of highschool, Williams had somewhat of a down season in 2019 after posting a 1.15 ERA a year prior. Across 49.1 innings this spring, Williams worked to a 4.56 ERA, striking out 56 batters (10.2 K/9) versus 23 walks. In kind of a do-it-all role, the right-hander appeared in 21 games for the Pirates, starting five of them and even notching a save.
With mid-90s velocity, Williams figures to be an important part of Godwin’s pitching staff in 2020, whether that be in the rotation or out of the bullpen.
Perhaps overlooked a bit on Saturday was freshman infielder/right-handed pitcher Zach Agnos. The younger brother of former Pirate pitcher Jake Agnos, Zach could be found at shortstop on Saturday. During infield drills and on relays, Agnos showed off his talented right arm that allows him to be a successful fielder and pitcher.
This fall, Godwin has been throwing challenges Agnos’ way, using him as both a pitcher and infielder. At this point, the freshman has responded well and impressed his coach who could benefit from another versatile player like Burleson.
“Up until this point, Zach has handled it because you’re doing double the work as a pitcher or as a position player,” Godwin said. “He has handled it very maturely, he has played really well, he has pitched well. He’s done a great job.”
Godwin indicated Agnos would pitch again on Sunday as the Pirates wrap-up their second week of fall practice. On Oct. 13, ECU is scheduled to travel to the University of Virginia for an exhibition before returning to Greenville on Oct. 20 to play Liberty University.