East Carolina wrapped up its baseball season this past week after getting knocked out of the Conference USA tournament. The season came and went, but not without its ups and downs.
ECU had a bit of a rocky start to the season. It started with three wins in four games at Clark-LeClair Stadium. The Pirates won their first series of the season by taking two of three games against James Madison. Dylan Brown and Ian Townsend got to an explosive start with home runs in the season opener and relief pitcher Ryan Williams earned both wins versus JMU out of the bullpen.
Things went south the following week with a four-day trip in Virginia that resulted in four losses. ECU slipped below .500 after getting swept by Virginia and Virginia Commonwealth.
On top of getting back above .500, the weekend was an impressive one for ECU's pitching staff. Williams, who wore LeClair's honorary No. 23 this season, notched his third and fourth wins of the season. Starting pitcher Jeff Hoffman and closer Drew Reynolds also had record-setting performances. In weekend opener versus Western Kentucky, Hoffman struck out 14 batters in eight innings. Reynolds' 27th career save, and third of the young season, became the school's new all-time high.
Things went right back downhill shortly after, though. The Diamond Bucs dropped four of their next five games. They took on Marshall in their first conference series and lost twice. After midweek, one-run losses to UNC Greensboro and Wake Forest, the Pirates were right back below .500.
ECU was getting big hits here and there, but couldn't string together hits to hold on to leads. Against Wake Forest, Bryce Harman drilled his first career home run—a three-run shot in the top of the first. The lead wouldn't last, though. ECU only added another run while Wake Forest rallied late.
That all changed a few days later. After getting blown out 7-2 in the series opener versus Tulane, ECU collected two wins in a doubleheader to win the series. More importantly, the Bucs got the hit that head coach Billy Godwin hoped would ignite the offense. That hit was Ian Townsend's RBI single up the middle in the sixth inning of Game 2 against Tulane.
Townsend and company carried it over to the next game and beyond. In the series finale with Tulane, Townsend highlighted an eight-run second inning with two separate homeruns. The Pirates ended up taking the game 13-3 when the game was called after eight innings.
After Tulane, the Pirates announced that sophomore catcher Travis Watkins would miss the remainder of the season. In addition to being a great backstop, his .360 batting average was among the team's best. ECU went on to sweep back-to-back series against conference foe UNC Charlotte and then UMBC, but ended up losing one of its most consistent batters in Ben Fultz due to a shoulder injury versus UMBC.
Despite that, all that momentum carried them to a series win versus league-best Rice. The Pirates won the opener and finale by one-run margins en route to the series win. Hoffman highlighted the defensive effort in the first win by fanning seven Owls. Zach Houchins drove the offensive end of the game by notching three hits and plating two of the team's three runs. The Pirates then stole the finale with a pair of two-out runs in the ninth inning.
The last month of the season was hot and cold. ECU routed in-state rival North Carolina State 7-0 in Greenville, but turned around and lost a conference series to Old Dominion that weekend. The Pirates would heat up again and earn their first regular-season sweep of North Carolina for the first time in 20 years, with a series win over Florida Atlantic sandwiched between the pair of games versus the Tar Heels.
ECU earned another C-USA series win when Middle Tennessee visited Clark-LeClair Stadium. In the series opener, Hoffman bested himself by striking out 16 batters in eight innings to lead ECU to a 1-0 win.
That stellar performance would be his last of the season and likely his last as a Pirate. ECU announced that the ace pitcher would undergo season-ending Tommy John surgery.
After that, though, ECU won only one of its final three league series. With the C-USA tournament right around the corner, the Pirates were swept by Florida International at home, lost two at Southern Miss before finally winning a series by taking two at home versus UTSA.
With a 4-3 record in the final two weeks of the season, the Pirates didn't exactly storm into Hattiesburg, Miss. for the conference tournament. They managed to beat host team Southern Miss in 11 innings to move on to the winner's bracket, but lost their next two games to get eliminated.
There will be a lot of question marks heading into next season. Younger players like Watkins, Charlie Yorgen and Garrett Brooks showed plenty of promise, but the Bucs will be without the services of seniors like Reynolds, Houchins, Brown and Williams. Throw in Hoffman, who is likely to get drafted, and they'll be losing key players both on the mound and at the plate.