GREENVILLE, N.C.–East Carolina punched its ticket to Sunday’s Conference USA championship game with a 9-4 win over Tulane this afternoon at Clark-LeClair Stadium. The Pirates were the tournament’s darkhorse partly because they feed off their boisterous home crowd, but today was the first time that home-field advantage has really been a factor. ECU was held scoreless for the first six innings in its tournament opener against Tulane and for the first eight innings in its second game against Southern Mississippi, neutralizing the crowd for most of both games. But today, the Pirates capitalized on three Tulane errors to score three runs in the first inning, and they kept their composure after Tulane tied the score at 3-3.
“Anytime you score three in the first, as hard as runs have been to come by for us in this tournament, that was certainly critical,” East Carolina coach Billy Godwin said. “It got the crowd involved, we talked about that. When you play at home, you don’t have home-field advantage–the bases are 90 feet, the pitching rubber is 60 feet, six inches. The big advantage when you play an event like this at home is to get the crowd into it. That’s something we weren’t able to do the first couple of nights, but we did it today, and I think that’s something that helped us a lot.”
By winning their first three games, East Carolina avoids having to play a second game Saturday. Rice could have done the same, but the Owls lost to Memphis 2-1 this morning and must now beat the Tigers this afternoon to advance to the championship game. Had Rice won this morning, it could have saved lefthander Joe Savery for the Pirates tomorrow. Instead, Savery is pitching now against Memphis, and Rice will have to choose between righthanders Scott Lonergan and Mike Ojala on Sunday, unless the Owls opt to bring freshman righty Ryan Berry back on short rest. That seems unlikely, because the Owls don’t have an awful lot to gain Sunday–they’re already a lock for a national seed.
East Carolina is in a similar position. Godwin said he would determine his starter based on who matches up best with the winner of the Rice-Memphis game, but he’s likely to go with either freshman righty Mike Anderson (who has been a midweek starter for the Pirates this year) or junior righty Mike Flye (who has pitched in relief). Godwin could bring ace T.J. Hose back on short rest, but Hose threw 101 pitches on Wednesday. Like Rice, ECU doesn’t have an awful lot to gain Sunday, other than the obvious prize of winning the Conference USA championship. The Pirates are probably locked in as a No. 2 seed whether they win or lose on Sunday.
If Memphis wins this afternoon, its pitching will be in even worse shape, because the Tigers had to play a loser’s bracket game Friday while the Pirates and Owls were resting. Memphis has a good enough offense to slug its way right to the title, and it probably needs to do that to make the NCAA tournament. The Tigers’ hopes for an at-large bid took a big hit when they lost three of their final four conference series to Marshall, Houston and Rice. With an RPI of 60, just getting to the CUSA title game probably won’t be enough. The Tigers need to lock up the automatic bid.