Bracing for the Storm

Published 7:35 pm Thursday, June 2, 2011

East Carolina starter Michael Wright (center) will get the call for the Pirates today when they take on St. Johns in the first round of regional play in Charlottesville, Va., at 6 p.m. (WDN Photo/Edwin Modlin II)

GREENVILLE — If the Pirates want to make their first Super Regional since 2009 they must first escape a Charlottesville Regional that features St. Johns, Navy and Virginia, the No. 1 ranked team in the country. East Carolina (39-19), which earned the No. 2 seed, will begin its 25th regional appearance tonight when its takes on third-seeded St. Johns (35-20, Big East) at 6 p.m.

The Pirates head into the double-elimination event on the heels of an up-and-down performance at the Conference USA tournament in which they finished 2-1.

East Carolina begin the tourney by blowing a ninth inning lead to Houston as the Cougars rallied for five runs in the final stanza to stun the Pirates 8-5.

The Pirates came close to having a repeat performance the next day as their 2-1 ninth inning lead against Tulane did not hold up as the Green Wave forced extras. However, the Pirates did not fold. They battled back to win 4-2 in the 11th thanks to a two-run double by Corey Thompson. They followed up on that performance by topping Southern Miss 4-0 as staff ace Seth Maness turned in masterful performance.

Not giving in to Tulane was huge because had the team lost it would have headed into the regionals in the worst way possible having blown two straight games. However, by winning the team recaptures that fighting spirit and should be a confident group coming into tonight’s game.

“We had a tough loss to Houston the night before and we were in a situation where we had to win,” said ECU’s senior center fielder Trent Whitehead. “The guys just kept battling and battling and we didn’t quit. It was a good win … This time of year no team is going to roll over and for us to keep battling and get that win is huge for the team.”

Pirates coach Billy Godwin agreed.

“I thought it was a huge win after a tough loss,” Godwin said. “Usually in a tournament the most important game is the game after a loss. Not only because it’s an elimination game but because you just don’t know the psyche of your guys. Our guys came out and squandered a lead again in the ninth, but what a huge way to battle back.”

The Pirates are hoping they won’t have to battle back tonight against St. Johns.

“I have only really glanced at them right now,” Godwin said at practice Tuesday. “I know they have a couple of guys that are really good. I know they have a very good No. 1 (pitcher) in (Kyle) Hansen and they have a shortstop (Joe Panik) that is hitting around .400, and they are hitting about .290 as a team.”

Hansen is expected to take the mound tonight for the Red Storm and he will face off against Mike Wright. Hansen, a 6-8, 215-pound sophomore is 8-6 on the season with a 2.70 ERA and has struck out 105 batters in 103 innings. Wright, a 6-5, 195-pound junior, has 6-3 record with a 2.84 ERA and has fanned 70 batters in 92 innings.

Playoff games tend draw quicker calls to the bullpen then regular season games and while Godwin said he won’t change the way he manages his relievers he also added, “We’re not going to bring anybody home rested. We got some good guys at the back end of our pen and we will use them as the situation arises to win the game. Our whole emphasis is to go in and not just be glad to be there, but to have an opportunity to win the tournament.”

Wright has been solid on the year and he will look to get support from an ECU lineup that features six hitters batting over .300 in Whitehead (.332), Thompson (.330), Philip Clark (.329), Jack Reinheimer (.323), Chase McDonald (.302) and Ben Fultz (.301).

Catcher Zach Wright leads the team in home runs with 13, while Thompson’s 45 RBIs are a team-high.

The Pirates played at Davenport Field once already this year during the second week of the season when they took on the Cavaliers in a three-game series and finished 1-2.

Whitehead said that the ECU hitters must adjust to the spacious ballpark.

“It’s a big park,” Whitehead said. “There is a lot of outfield ground and we just have to work on line drives and not hit everything out. Defensively, we outfielders have to eliminate the extra-base hits.”

The winner of the ECU- St. Johns game will advance to face the winner of the Navy-Virginia game while the two losing teams will battle for their playoffs lives.