C-USA showdownPublished 8:59pm Thursday, April 7, 2011
GREENVILLE — The Pirates are in the midst of one of the most grueling portions of their schedule as they are coming off a weekend road trip to UAB, which came before playing at rival N.C. State on Tuesday which was followed by hosting Elon on Wednesday. With one day to rest, East Carolina will resume action tonight when it hosts perennial Conference USA powerhouse No. 22 Rice.
The Pirates (21-8, 3-3) lost their series with UAB 2-1, then let a lead slip away against the Wolfpack as they fell 4-2 on Tuesday. On Wednesday, ECU got back on track as it pieced together a quality 7-0 win over Elon to give the team some momentum as it begins its three-game series with the Owls (21-12, 4-2).
“Every series in Conference USA is a big series, and certainly Rice is team that wins Conference USA a lot of years and is a good program,” East Carolina coach Billy Godwin said. “It’s good to have them at home, we will have our hands full.”
Led by four-time national coach of the year Wayne Graham, Rice has won the Conference USA regular season crown, tournament title or both 15 of Graham’s 20 years at the helm.
Though the Owls bring back two-time Conference USA Player of the Year third baseman Anthony Rendon, Godwin says this year’s team is not the same as last year’s squad.
“They can really pitch, they always can pitch, but they have a different team,” Godwin said. “They have a lot of new faces. They lost position players, but they got some pitchers back. They have a freshman in (Austin) Kabitza who is throwing really well for them … When you have a tradition like they do, and we do, it’s always a good matchup.”
Kabitza will throw the first game of the series for Rice and enters the matchup with a 3-3 record and a team-best 1.47 ERA.
Kabitza, who has struck out 46 batters in 49 innings, and will be matched against ECU ace Seth Maness (4-2, 2.03) when the two teams clash tonight at 6 p.m.
“You have to treat it like any other game, but really in the back of your mind it is Rice and you know you need to step your game up,” Maness said.
Michael Wright (4-1, 2.41) will throw for ECU on Saturday while Kevin Brandt (3-0, .77) will pitch on Sunday. Rice has not yet announced its starters for Saturday and Sunday.
The Pirates have a remarkable 1.86 team ERA which is by far the best in C-USA. The next best staff statistically is Southern Miss’ whose team ERA stands at 3.22
Maness has been a workhorse for the Pirates this year. The senior has thrown three complete games already and leads C-USA in innings pitched with 53.1.
Maness said he does not feel overwhelmed by the work load.
“I’m not really (feeling the affect of it) right now,” Maness said. “I feel like I’m in good shape and just ready to get back out there.”
Fans will be in for a treat tonight as Maness, the reigning Conference USA Pitcher of the Year, will battle with Rendon, the reigning C-USA player of the year, who comes into the series batting .370 with three home runs and 20 RBIs.
“You have to mix it up and keep him off speed,” Maness said. “He is a great hitter and if you leave anything up he will beat you.”
A lot of teams have elected to not let Rendon beat them as he leads C-USA in walks with 47, which is more than double the total of the next player on the list.
Godwin gushed when talking about the Owls’ slugger.
“He is one of the best hitters I have probably ever seen,” Godwin said. “He has had some injuries that have prohibited him from playing third and he is DH-ing a lot now, but he is a complete player. He is a plus defender, a good runner and he is as good as any hitter that I have been around.”
The Pirates have some pretty good hitters as well. Freshman Ben Fultz has been phenomenal and has started 19 of the team’s 29 games and is hitting a team-high .362 in 69 at-bats.
Of the Pirates that have more than 80 at-bats, fellow freshman Jack Reinhiemer is leading the way with a .333 average, while Corey Thompson his batting .308 and Zach Wright is posting a .301 average.
East Carolina senior leadoff hitter Trent Whitehead, who entered this season with a career batting average of .343, has been struggling at the plate this year as he enters the Rice series hitting .267.
Against Elon Whitehead went 1-for-4 with a home run and is working hard to regain his old form.
“I’m not there yet, but (the home run) was much-needed,” Whitehead said. “I’m struggling right now and I’m battling some things. But, after working on some things and hitting a home run (Wednesday) it was a good sign. I just got to keep going.
“I think right now I just have to get my confidence back in myself. Maybe I am putting too much pressure on myself; I’m not sure. I just have to get out there and play my game.”
Godwin said he has not seen any changes in Whitehead from last year to this year, but said he is trying to get his leadoff hitter back into rhythm.
“I think like every hitter you tend to ride peaks and valleys. The key with a good hitter is that they don’t stay in the valleys too long,” Godwin said. “Trent puts a lot of pressure on himself and rightfully so. He expects a lot from himself and that’s what I want our guys to do. We just want him to get a little bit more comfortable and in a little bit better of a rhythm at the plate.”
Whitehead is one of four players that has started all 29 of ECU’s games this year.
“I love going out and playing everyday, but it’s not the same. I’m feeling my age a little bit … I’m 21 but I’m feeling a lot older than that,” Whitehead joked. “It’s a grind, but that’s college baseball. You have to realize that you are not going to be 100 percent everyday. You just have to grind through it and mentally prepare yourself to play everyday.”
Godwin said Whitehead is key player and is “a guy that needs to be out there everyday for us in order for us to reach our goals.”