Pirates prepare for Storm
GREENVILLE — Last year East Carolina opened up regional play with one eye on its opener against St. Johns and the other on No.1 Virginia, who was waiting in the on-deck circle. The result was a 2-0 victory by the Red Storm that put the Pirates behind the eight ball for the rest of the double-elimination tournament.
Come 1 p.m. Friday, the Pirates (35-22-1, Conference USA) will find themselves in a similar situation as they will travel to play in the Chapel Hill Regional and once again face the Red Storm (37-21, Big East) in the opener, only this time a powerhouse Tar Heels team that is ranked sixth in the nation waits in the wings.
“You can never underestimate your opponent,” ECU catcher Zach Wright said. “We went into last year more worried about Virginia being the No. 1 overall seed than St. Johns. Right now, we’re not even focused on Carolina. We’re doing scouting reports on St. Johns and that’s the only team in our target right now.”
East Carolina, the No. 2 seed in the Chapel Hill Regional, will go to war with No. 3 St. Johns behind freshman pitcher Jeff Hoffman, a Latham, N.Y. native, who has compiled a 3-1 record and a 3.37 ERA while allowing 53 hits in 69.1 innings of work this season.
The decision to start Hoffman means that if the Pirates are able to get past the Red Storm they will have senior staff ace Kevin Brandt, an all-Conference USA first-team selection, ready to go Saturday to face the winner of the No. 1 UNC-No. 4 Cornell matchup.
“Ideally, what you want when you go into the postseason is several of what you would call ‘No. 1s’,” Pirates coach Billy Godwin said. “I think Jeff was throwing as well as anybody we had going into the end of the year. I think it’s a good matchup and we’re going into the tournament trying to win one game at a time and I thought that was our best matchup.”
Hoffman said he was thrilled to get the starting nod.
“Coach Godwin has a lot of confidence in me. He’s thrown me to the dogs all year,” Hoffman said. “It’s nice as a freshman for him to have that kind of confidence in you and it makes me just want to get the job done that much more.”
Hoffman will face a St. Johns team that won the Big East regular season and tournament title and is powered by speedy senior middle infielder Matt Wessinger who leads the team in batting average (.348), home runs (6) and stolen bases (34). Wessinger teams up with outfielder Jeremy Baltz to create a formidable 1-2 punch, as Baltz is second on the team in hitting (.342) and stolen bases (17).
“I see a balanced lineup when I look at them,” Godwin said. “You don’t see a lot of guys with 12 or 14 home runs but they’re balanced throughout their lineup. Knowing their teams, they are going to be athletic and have team speed and try to force pressure.”
Wessinger and Baltz combined to steal 51 bases this season, nine more than the entire ECU team, and Wright said he is looking forward to trying to defend St. John’s running game.
“I accept the challenge with open arms,” Wright said. “I would love to show my talents versus other people’s talents and I’ll take me every time over anybody everyday.”
On offense, the Pirates have been led at the plate by all-Conference USA first-team selection John Wooten who leads the team with a .341 batting average, eight home runs and is tied for the team lead in RBIs with Wright at 38.
East Carolina is expected to face St. Johns 6-8 junior hurler Kyle Hansen (4-5, 3.44). Hansen, who has been projected to go somewhere in the first six rounds of this year’s MLB Draft, is the brother of former St. Johns star closer Craig Hansen who was drafted in 2005. On the year, Hansen has struck out 100 batters in 86.1 innings for the Storm.
“He’s been their ace at times,” Godwin said. “He’s got a good arm and he’s going to challenge our hitters.”
Heading into the postseason it’s the Pirates ability take on challenges that Godwin likes the most.
“I think what this team is doing well is competing,” Godwin said. “Sometimes when you’re competing you don’t always get the results that you want but I see these guys in the dugout and they want this … They compete on every pitch.”