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Aaron Fitt | | January 20, 2020

East Carolina baseball counts on skilled rotation, 2-way talents in 2020

Louisville storms past East Carolina in Game 1, 14-1

CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. — East Carolina coach Cliff Godwin didn’t pitch Jake Kuchmaner or Tyler Smith in his team’s back-to-back seven-inning scrimmages at Virginia on Oct. 13 because he already knew what they can do.

“But maybe we needed to, so we could win a game,” Godwin said. “I don’t like losing.”

Even in fall exhibitions that have no bearing on his team’s spring resumé, Godwin is in it to win it. His ability to instill his own competitiveness in his players has played no small part in the rise of East Carolina, which has hosted back-to-back regionals and been to two super regionals in the past four years. So Godwin was left with a sour taste in his mouth after losing 8-6 and 7-4 in the Virginia scrimmages, even though the Pirates were without top arms Kuchmaner and Smith plus Alec Burleson and Ryder Giles (two two-way players who are shut down on the mound this fall).

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Still, nobody should read too much into a pair of seven-inning exhibition losses in October. Once the spring rolls around, ECU will have a very formidable rotation that includes Burleson, Kuchmaner and Smith, all of whom have demonstrated advanced feel for pitching and supreme competitiveness over the course of their collegiate careers. Of course, Smith or Kuchmaner could very well be pushed to the midweek starter role because the Pirates are hopeful that flame-throwing right-hander Gavin Williams is ready to seize a weekend starter job as a junior.

Williams started the first Virginia game and came out of the chute with an electric fastball, sitting 96-97 mph in a seven-pitch first inning. He followed with two more scoreless frames, settling in at 94-95 along with a good swing-and-miss changeup at 88-89 and a big-breaking 11-to-5 curveball at 74-77. The development of that breaking ball is a big key for Williams, and it remains a work in progress.

“Last weekend it was better, against us,” Godwin said. “Today I thought it wasn’t quite as good. I didn’t think it was like terrible, but [before Virginia] I thought it was lights-out. It was like 79-80, it was a hammer.”

Burleson, a first-team All-American as a two-way player last year, is already a bona fide ace, and if Williams can harness his prodigious talent this spring, the Pirates could have one of college baseball’s best one-two punches atop the rotation. Changeup specialist lefty Kuchmaner (7-2, 2.99) and sinker-baller Smith (7-1, 5.59) round out what should be a dynamite four-man rotation.

Obviously the Pirates will miss All-America ace Jake Agnos (11-3, 2.29), but fortunately they have another Agnos ready to make a huge impact. Jake’s younger brother Zach Agnos has big-time two-way ability — he could very well follow in Burleson’s footsteps as a first-team All-America utility player before his ECU career is over.

Zach showed good bat speed and feel for his barrel against Virginia, lining an RBI single to the opposite gap in right-center and then scorching an RBI double into the left-center gap. He’s a natural shortstop who has played that position most of the fall while Giles worked his way back from a rolled ankle, but he also showed Godwin he can handle third base this weekend, adding to his value.

On the mound, Agnos pounded the zone at 88-91 with good command and sink, along with a nice 75-76 curveball and an 81 mph changeup. He worked fast and stayed in attack mode, demonstrating the competitiveness that defines his game in all facets.

“I’m just super-impressed by his maturity, the way he can swing the bat and play defense and then get on the mound and pitch as well,” Godwin said. “He’s mature beyond his years, and I’ve just been so pleased with the way he shows up every day, and the amount of workload that we’ve put on him early because Ryder’s been hurt so he’s had to play shortstop every day in intrasquads. And he’s actually done a really good job. So he actually hadn’t played third base in an intrasquad at all until [Virginia]. I like the option that Zach can play some third base. And Zach really can play anywhere on the infield, which is a good utility guy for us.

“It’s way too early [to tell what his pitching role will be]. We just like him, and we’ll figure that out come spring time, and I’m glad he’s on our side.”

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Agnos has obvious starter ability, but given the four likely starters ECU returns, it’s easy to envision Agnos taking on a key role in the late innings as a freshman, alongside Giles and a few others. Slot-shifting righty Cam Colmore is back as a fifth-year senior after making 26 appearances a year ago; he mixes an 88-90 fastball and a solid slurve from a three-quarters slot with an effective sinker from a sidearm slot.

Sophomore righty Carter Spivey, who logged just six innings as a freshman, was one of ECU’s bright spots on the mound against Virginia, working two scoreless innings. He’s a funky low three-quarters sinker baller with good life at 86-87.

A slew of newcomers will be counted upon to provide depth around the experienced core of the staff. Freshman two-way talent Skylar Brooks didn’t pitch against Virginia because he was sidelined by hernia surgery, but he’s a 6-foot-3 righty who’s been up to 93 in the past and could vie for back-end duties.

Strong, compact junior college transfer righties Trystan Kimmel and Nick Logusch also look well suited for the late innings. Kimmel was 88-90 with some feel for his three-quarters slurve against Virginia, and he’s been up to 93 in the past. Logusch worked at 89-82 at UVa. from an over-the-top slot, along with a promising 12-to-6 curveball in the 75-77 range and a quality changeup at 81-82. Neither of them got good results against Virginia, but ECU is counting upon them to pitch key innings in the spring.

From the left side, junior college transfer Elijah Gill was ambushed for four runs in the first inning of Game Two against Virginia, but the Pirates have high hopes for him too. He worked at 87-89 in Charlottesville but can touch 92, and he has the makings of a quality 76-80 breaking ball and a nice low-80s changeup.

Six-foot-4, 185-pound freshman Carson Whisenhunt is another two-way player with projection both at the plate and on the mound, where he worked at 88-91 with an 83-84 cutter/slider from a high slot. Fellow freshmen CJ Mayhue and AJ Wilson did not pitch at Virginia, but the Pirates say both of them have been up to 92 mph and have good upside.

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The sleeper of the freshman class is righty Nate Nabholz, who wasn’t a high-profile recruit but is turning himself into an arm of interest. He was one of ECU’s biggest bright spots against Virginia, working two scoreless innings. He went after hitters with a lively 87-90 fastball, a nice changeup at 80-82 with good bottom and a useful slurve in the high-70s.

“Listen, if you can write one thing about him, the kid shows up every day,” Godwin said. “It’s one of the most coachable guys, you don’t hear a word from him. And I told our guys right out there in the meeting that his success is not an accident. The guy shows up every day with a ton of intent what he’s trying to do. If Coach [Jason] Dietrich told him to throw left handed, he’d throw left handed because he trusts our pitching coach. And he threw an inning to make the travel squad — and he comes out here and throws two innings today with lights-out stuff. So I’m super proud of him.”

Offensively, the Pirates have to replace sluggers Bryant Packard and Spencer Brickhouse plus catcher Jake Washer, shortstop Turner Brown and second baseman Brady Lloyd, five mainstays over the last three years. So there will inevitably be less firepower in the lineup in 2020, and the new middle infield tandem needs to prove itself. Giles slides from third base to his natural shortstop, where his arm plays well and his actions are sound, though he’s replacing one of the premier defenders in college baseball. He’s a tough out at the plate by working counts and putting together several quality at-bats.

Fellow sophomore Connor Norby takes over at second base, and Godwin likes what he’s seen from him at that position. He’s also a breakout candidate at the plate with a patient approach and developing right-handed pop. He showed off his bat speed by ripping a 93 mph fastball off Virginia’s Christian Sanchez into the right-center gap for a three-run double against Virginia.

“He’s night and day mentally better than he was last year,” Godwin said of Norby. “He’s always had the talent, but just being able to show up to practice every day, having a ton of intent and energy to what he’s doing. I’ve been really proud of the way he’s shown up every day. I thought he was a little antsy in the box early, but that was a big bases-clearing double he had there to tie the second game.”

Burleson (.370/.399/.573, 9 HR, 23 2B, 61 RBI) provides the proven star power in the middle of the lineup, as a gifted left-handed hitter with power and a knack for delivering big hits with men on base. He’s simply one of the best players in the country, an invaluable piece to build the roster around, both offensively and on the mound. He had three hits and a walk against Virginia, highlighted by a monstrous two-run homer to right-center on a 91 mph fastball from Griff McGarry.

East Carolina needs sophomore Thomas Francisco to tap into his big left-handed power potential this year too. Francisco hit .319/.451/.478 with four homers as a freshman, but he has the tool set to be a real force in the heart of the order, possibly stepping into the Brickhouse role. He played third base and looked good there against Virginia, and he also delivered a single up the middle and a double into the right-field corner.

”He’s kind of been jumpy this fall, and we’ve been trying to get him drive the ball more,” Godwin said. “But he’s really done a good job creating more athleticism in his body. He made some good plays at third base, which I don’t think he makes some of those plays last year. Just the option to play him at third or first is a good thing.”

Francisco could play third when Burleson is at first base, then slide across to first base when Burleson pitches or plays right field. In that instance, Agnos seems like the obvious candidate to play third base.

Behind the plate, Godwin has been very pleased with the development of junior Seth Caddell, who received and blocked well against Virginia and showed an accurate, cannon-like arm. He’s embraced a leadership role this year and taken ownership of the staff, which is exactly what Godwin wanted to see. Junior college transfer Matt James (who has some righthanded pop) and rifle-armed freshman Ben Newton give the Pirates two more options at catcher.

Sophomore left fielder Lane Hoover, a 5-foot-8 spark plug with a simple left-handed swing, good bat-handling skills and a disciplined approach, is a natural fit in the leadoff spot. He hit .328 a year ago with 27 walks against just 15 strikeouts, illustrating his perfect table-setter profile.

Look for center fielder Bryson Worrell (.253/.327/.442) to take a step forward as a junior. He’s one of ECU’s most athletically gifted players, a physical 6-foot-2, 210-pound switch-hitter with an exciting speed/power combination. He just needs to unlock his potential.

“Bryson has continued to take a step,” Godwin said. “Big at-bat with a runner at third base [against Virginia], he smoked a ball. He puts a lot of pressure on teams because he can run, he can hit for power, he’s got a hose in the outfield.”

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Sophomore Christian Jayne is an intriguing X-factor. He redshirted last spring after working his way back from an injury that sidelined him in the fall, but he returned to action in the Cal Ripken League and performed well, hitting for average and stealing some bases. He’s an ultra-projectable 6-foot-5, 192-pound left-handed hitter with good whip in his stroke, and he’s a long strider with plus-plus speed underway. He showed up well against Virginia, starting in right field and delivering three hits in the two games, including a liner double to the right-center gap and a triple down the right-field line. As he continues to get stronger, he’ll surely grow into some home run power too.

Overall, ECU’s new-look offense looked very competitive in Charlottesville, but that should be no surprise. The Pirates are always going to compete their tails off under Cliff Godwin. There are quite a few new starters who need to prove themselves, and a couple other returning starters that must take steps forward. But the pieces are there for East Carolina to make another postseason run.

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