Diamond Bucs Get Set for Season Opener

East Carolina hosts James Madison for its opening weekend. Inside ECU Sports has an in-depth breakdown of the Pirates baseball squad.

After righting the ship last season when they fell below the .500 mark, the Pirates failed to deliver in the Conference-USA tournament. They only won one of three games in the round robin, which effectively ended their postseason.

Now, as the 2014 season approaches, ECU is setting the bar high. The Pirates aiming at making an impact in the C-USA tournament in their last season before departing for the American Athletic Conference. Beyond that, they're hoping to make an appearance in the NCAA tournament.

With opening weekend upon us, let's take an in-depth look at how the Pirates look heading into this season.

Starting pitchers

East Carolina plans on using a weekend pitching rotation of Jeff Hoffman on Friday, David Lucroy on Saturday and Tyler Bolton on Sunday. Hoffman and Lucroy were both starters last year, but Bolton is new to the crew. He only started two of his 10 appearances last season.

Hoffman comes into this season with plenty of expectations. He's an All-American candidate, was named to a handful of preseason All-America squads as well as plenty of additional accolades.

"Individually, the one thing that me and [pitching] coach [Dan] Roszel have really stressed over the past couple years is getting deep into games," said Hoffman. "If I set that goal for myself—getting deep into games and keeping my pitch count down—that turns into a team goal. We're trying to win games, right? If I'm getting deep into games, it's easier to win games [because] we're saving bullpen arms. That's definitely one of the things we're trying to do this year."

Lucroy also returns to a weekend rotation spot. In 14 starts in 15 appearances last season, he recorded a 2.49 earned run average. Brett Mabry was the only other pitcher on the team to sport a better ERA.

Bolton will be the wild card. He finished last season with a 0-2 record and a 7.36 ERA. He struck out 10 players while walking six. He's going to need to demonstrate the consistency required of a pitcher in the weekend rotation. If he can do that, ECU is going to have a strong core of players on the mound.

Bullpen

ECU has a pretty deep bullpen going into this season. Among the most decorated players ready to come out mid-game is Ryan Williams. Williams started 15 of his 18 appearances last season, which is as many games as Hoffman started. In that span, he boasted a 6-2 record and a 4.50 ERA. He gave up 55 runs (48 earned) and struck out 45 players.

"[Williams] will be out of the bullpen," said head coach Billy Godwin. "He'll be strictly out of the bullpen the entire weekend. We'll use him as needed. He'll be one of our go-to guys. Hopefully we won't have to go to him early, but having the comfort level of having a Ryan Williams come out of your bullpen…that's a lot of comfort for me as a head coach."

It's not just comforting for the coach. Having such talented pitchers on call in the bullpen helps starting pitchers like Hoffman, too.

"Last year, we kind of struggled in that area," said Hoffman of the bullpen. "This year, we have a lot of pieces that we can put together. It's just a matter of if those guys, if we all click on the same cylinders at the same time. Guys like Luke Bolka, Ryan Williams and Brett Mabry, those guys are all coming along really well."

"It takes that stress off your back," Hoffman added, "that I don't have to go into the eighth or ninth inning every game. I can get it to the seventh and say ‘Hey, you guys, take it from here.' It's going to take a lot of stress off our arms going into the conference tournament and the postseason. It will be huge for us."

Bolka, a freshman, is a pitcher that can develop into a strong closer. He can throw the ball hard into the zone and get his fair share of outs.

Another key member of the bullpen is Nick Durazo. The sophomore pitcher posted a 1-4 record and a 7.36 ERA last season. He appeared in 10 games and started six of those. In that time, he allowed 25 runs (24 earned) and racked up 16 strikeouts.

Question marks

One of the biggest question marks not too long ago surrounded the shortstop position. What was once a problem of finding a solid starter has become two players competing for the role.

"I had question marks about who was going to be out shortstop," said Godwin. "Now I'm trying to make a tough decision on who will actually play shortstop. Kirk Morgan and Hunter Allen have played extremely well. I've been really impressed. I think they're two different players. Hunter is a little stronger of a defensive player and Kirk Morgan with a little more offense."

"I think it's still day to day," he added. "It's up in the air. But I'm really pleased. I went from not knowing if we were going to have one or what we were going to get to being able to play either guy."

Another question mark is how the Pirates will fill the shoes of Jack Reinheimer and Chase McDonald. Last season, those two were some of the team's best hitters. Reinheimer had 32 runs on 60 hits and tallied another 21 RBI. McDonald led the Pirates in homeruns (11) and RBI (46). Both their offensive outputs will be missed this year.

Thankfully, ECU still has the likes of Drew Reynolds and Zach Houchins. Throw in the addition of Ian Townsend, who transferred from St. John's River Community College in Brooksville, Fla., and the Pirates still have plenty of firepower.

"Ian's new to our program," said Godwin. "I want him to come in and hit into the four, five or six hole for us and be as good a hitter as he can be in that hole. As far as leadership, a guy like that leads by example. He leads by coming out and having competitive at-bats and providing the team with a lift and providing the team with power."


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