After a two-year absence, East Carolina is returning to the NCAA baseball tournament. And although there might be some raised eyebrows at the Pirates’ accomplishments, first-year head coach Cliff Godwin isn’t surprised.
“Everybody would ask me before the season,” said Godwin, who was an all-conference catcher during his playing career at ECU (1998-2001) and made three trips to the NCAA tournament. “The expectations were not very high outside our facility. But like I told the local media (Monday), we were not going to put parameters on this team. We expected to get better every day and play for a championship.
“Our guys bought into that vision. We expect to play for championships at East Carolina, and that’s what we expect every year.”
ECU (40-20) won the American Athletic Conference tournament, and as an automatic qualifier was named the No. 2 seed in the Coral Gables Regional with host Miami (44-14), third-seeded Columbia (43-15) and fourth-seeded Florida International (29-29).
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ECU will play Columbia at 1 p.m. Friday, with Miami and FIU meeting at 7 p.m. The losers and winners play each other Saturday.
The Coral Gables Regional champion will play the Dallas Regional champion in the super regionals. The Dallas field has Dallas Baptist, Texas, Oregon State and Virginia Commonwealth.
The Pirates are making their 27th regional appearance, but only twice have they advanced to a super regional, in 2004 and 2009. Both times they hosted regionals when they advanced.
Godwin, voted the AAC coach of the year, characterized his team as “selfless,” adding, “We’re not really deep, not the most talented. It’s been somebody different every day, on the mound or at the plate.”
Senior shortstop Hunter Allen was named the AAC tournament MVP after hitting .500 (9-for-18) with a double, triple and six runs scored. He was also the Pirates’ leading hitter this season at .353.
Allen tore a ligament in his thumb in midseason but opted against having surgery and missing the rest of the season because he wouldn’t have qualified for a medical redshirt.
“He never takes BP, never takes a swing in practice, only live in games,” Godwin said. “He’s solidified our leadoff spot and is the guy who gets us going.”
Pitcher-center fielder Reid Love and left fielder Luke Lowery also made the all-tournament team. Love, the Pirates’ No. 1 pitcher, went 7-3 with a 2.84 ERA and hit .300 as a regular outfielder. Last week, he was named among 21 semifinalists for the John Olerud Award, emblematic of the best two-way college player.
“He’s one of our most talented players, for sure,” Godwin said of the senior left-hander from Dunnellon, Fla. “His biggest strength is he’s a great competitor.”
Lowery, a junior, leads the Pirates in home runs (12) and RBIs (49) while hitting .313.
Godwin has two more lefties behind Love in his rotation, sophomores Evan Kruczynski (8-4, 3.06), who will start Friday against Columbia, and Jacob Wolfe (5-2, 3.35). Both earned wins in the AAC tournament.
“Kruczynski at 6-4 has got some deception in his delivery,” Godwin said. “He throws 85 to 88 with good movement. Guys don’t see the baseball real well against him. He throws downhill a little bit.
“Wolfe’s kind of a different guy, almost sidearm. His ball moves so much, a lot of times you don’t know which way it’s going.”
The Pirates also got an all-tournament performance last week from freshman closer Joe Ingle, a 6-foot-4 right-hander from Fayetteville’s Terry Sanford High. Ingle (1-0, 0.88 ERA, 8 saves) posted a win and two saves in the tournament, and junior lefty Nick Durazo won the championship game with five innings of shutout relief in the 9-1 title win over Houston, the AAC regular-season champion.
“Joe has evolved into our closer,” Godwin said. “Not to give our staff a lot of credit, but we’ve slowly worked him into that role because freshmen are kind of feeling their way through college baseball.”
Godwin said he didn’t know much yet about Columbia, the Pirates’ first-day opponent. “We’re just gathering reports right now,” he said Tuesday. “I just know they’re good because they beat Houston two of four games this year.”
FIU was a Conference USA rival of ECU’s last year, when the Panthers swept a three-game series in Greenville.
Then there’s Miami, which is making its NCAA-record 43rd consecutive tournament appearance and was awarded the fifth seed nationally after a runner-up regular-season run in the ACC.
“Everybody’s good,” Godwin said. “It’s all about who’s playing well right now.”
ECU is certainly one of those teams, having won eight in a row and 20 of its last 25 over the last month. The Pirates went 11-12 this year against eight teams in the NCAA field.
“I’m happy for the guys and East Carolina University,” Godwin said. “I played here in such a great era, and I’m happy East Carolina baseball is back in the postseason.”
Coral Gables (Fla.) Regional
Columbia (31-15) vs. East Carolina (40-20), 1 p.m.
Florida International (29-29) at Miami (44-14), 7 p.m.