College baseball: 5 reasons why red-hot East Carolina has surged in the polls
East Carolina is off to a 7-1 start in 2018. With a big series victory against in-state rival and then-top 10 North Carolina, the Pirates have jumped from unranked to No. 18 in college baseball.
So what's going on in Greenville? What exactly is behind the hot start of the Pirates?
1) He's a Brickhouse...
Spencer Brickhouse is the Pirates' sophomore first baseman and designated hitter. He's also been an on-base machine for the majority of his young career.
Brickhouse has reached base safely in 24 straight games, dating back to an April 2017 series against Tulane. He has also become the power bat East Carolina needs. Brickhouse homered on opening day for the second consecutive season and followed it up with his second home run a game later. He leads the Pirates in home runs and RBI, and if there's a name to know in ECU's lineup, it's his. You can't go wrong with Brickhouse.
2) Fans are piling in to Clark-LeClair Stadium
The Pirates played their first-ever weekend traveling series against then-No. 6 North Carolina last weekend. ECU opened the series at home, then headed to the Durham Bulls' Athletic Park on Saturday, before wrapping up the series in Chapel Hill on the Tar Heels' home turf.
#PirateNation thanks for the electric atmosphere at Clark-LeClair Stadium on Friday night. Our #MondayMood is pretty great after a series win over North Carolina! Video: @LosCMG pic.twitter.com/wxWhKPd6Yi— ECUAthletics (@ECUAthletics) February 26, 2018
Taking the series from the Tar Heels propelled ECU up the rankings. It was just the second time in head coach Cliff Godwin's tenure that the Pirates beat a top-six team. The first? A 2-1 series win over defending national champion Virginia in 2016. It's more impressive when you look back at the last two years and see that ECU dropped the last four games against an improving UNC program.
But what's most impressive is that the Game 1 victory was played in front of 5,382 fans on the Greenville campus. That was the third-largest number of fans to watch a game at Clark-LeClair Stadium in program history. The most was 5,581 in April 2009 against North Carolina, and the second-most was 5,523 against North Carolina State in March 2007. Six of the top 20 attendance figures in ECU history have come when UNC is in town, with the Pirates picking up just their second win in those six games last Friday.
3) Strikeout artists
The ECU pitching staff has been pretty impressive thus far in 2018. The Pirates' arms have pitched to a 2.03 ERA, flirting with the top-10 in college baseball. But it's the strikeouts that stand out.
The Pirates haven't been big on strikeout performances the past few years, averaging 7.04-per-nine over the past five seasons. That's all changed this season. The Pirates have struck out double-digit hitters in five of their first eight games, with a season high of 15 in an opening day victory over Western Carolina.
Chris Holba and Trey Benton have been borderline untouchable in 2018. Holba has yet to allow a run in his two starts, striking out 16 and walking just two. He shut down UNC in the series-clinching victory, going seven shutout innings with eight strikeouts. Benton went six strong innings in the series-opening win against UNC, allowing one unearned run, while striking out 11 and walking none. The staff is striking out one per inning on the season, a tremendous improvement from season's past.
4) A streak worth breaking
The Pirates are owners of a streak that comes with both good and bad connotations. ECU has appeared in 28 regionals but has never made it to Omaha. While the 28 appearances are certainly praise-worthy, it's the longest active streak in the NCAA.
ECU plays in a pretty tough American Athletic Conference, with teams like Houston, UCF and South Florida all coming off seasons that ended in the regionals. Throw in a sleeper team like newly added Wichita State and a competitive Connecticut squad, and the AAC is a tough battle to make it through in itself.
The last time ECU was in the postseason in 2016, it picked up the first Super Regional win in program history. Now with a big series win on their resume already in 2018, perhaps it's the push it needs to get to Omaha.
5) History in the making
Attendance figures weren't the only thing making history Friday night against UNC. ECU had its first use of instant replay at Clark-LeClair Stadium in program history.
UNC's head coach Mike Fox actually made the challenge on a Bryant Packard base hit to centerfield that he felt was caught. After roughly five minutes of review, the umpires upheld the call, rewarding Packard his lone hit of the 2-1 victory.
It was just in the nick of time as well. As ECU adapts to the evolving replay usage, the replay equipment was installed the day prior to the series.