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Stepping Up: Wheels haven’t come off for ECU yet

Coming off of a second home sweep — this time at the hands of Connecticut — the sky on East Carolina baseball team’s season is not falling just yet.

It’s been a disappointing couple of weeks of the Pirates, and the week ahead gets no easier with a trip to No. 4 Chapel Hill up next in a midweek contest before a three-game set against American Athletic Conference powerhouse Houston. This week could be very telling. Should the Pirates find a way to at least split the four-game week, it should be considered a success against such stiff competition.

Offensively, it was a difficult weekend. On paper, the Pirates still have the deepest lineup in the conference and one of the best nationally. ECU scored just five runs in the weekend set against UConn, but it ultimately came down to missed opportunities.

On Friday, ECU had nine strikeouts with runners in scoring position, including four looking. Saturday, ECU left nine runners on base in a 13-hit game. Defensively, errors ultimately buried the Pirates as Trey Benton allowed the lone earned run of the game.

Despite an injury that has kept ace Evan Kruczynski out of action since the first game of the Keith LeClair Classic and a disappointing start to the senior campaign for Jacob Wolfe, freshmen and other young arms have kept the pitching staff afloat. With a 3.91 ERA as a team, the Pirates have been carried by Trey Benton, Jake Agnos and Chris Holba, who are each sporting a sub-2.50 ERA. The bullpen, however, has been suspect.

Junior door-slammer Joe Ingle has gotten off to a slow start with a 4.67 ERA in his first 12 appearances and holds a 3-2 record. Matt Bridges has also struggled with a 5.32 ERA in 22 innings while Sam Lanier has a 6.20 ERA over 20 1/3 innings. The silver lining can be found in the trio’s past. Ingle, a junior, Bridges and Lanier, each sophomores, have each been key cogs in the Pirate bullpen over the last two seasons. Bridges and Lanier each had stellar showings in the Pirates’ 2016 Super Regional run, and Ingle is one of the program’s all-time saves leaders. As the season reaches its crucial points, things can only go up for the experienced bullpen arms.

The offense knows the pressure is on after a poor showing of late, but it will ultimately be up to the senior leadership to carry this team out of the hole it is in. Charlie Yorgen, Travis Watkins and Eric Tyler each still had solid weekends at the plate. Behind those three, Luke Bolka and Bryce Harman will simply have to see more at bats to get some consistency back in their swings.

Similar to the pitching side, young players have stepped up in the meantime. Dusty Baker currently leads the team in batting average through 22 games and 12 starts. Sophomore Dwanya Williams-Sutton is on the comeback trail and was playing well until he was pulled from Saturday’s game with an injury to the same thumb that made him miss 18 games. And no conversation about ECU’s young talent is complete without mention of Spencer Brickhouse, who is hitting .325 with a team-high seven home runs.

The young talent is being relied upon to keep the team’s collective head above water. Ultimately, though, it will come back to the much-talked-about senior leaders of the offense. It is a group that saw just three conference tournament games in the final appearance in Conference USA as freshmen. The same group anchored a regional appearance in 2015 and stormed ECU to within 90 feet of a College World Series in 2016.

The rest of this season is unknown, but with experience on its side, this bump in the road should come to pass and it may just come to serve as a learning experience at just the right time.