Image credit: ECU two-way player Zach Agnos (Photo courtesy of ECU Athletics Communications)
The 2022 season in the AAC followed a familiar script. As the season went along, East Carolina separated itself as the clear class of the conference, this time doing enough to earn a top-eight national seed.
Behind ECU, however, there wasn’t much to write home about. No team finished closer than six games back of the Pirates, and as the season wound down, it was clear that no other team was going to make a push to secure an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament.
The difference between 2022 and 2021 is that two seasons ago, South Florida made a Cinderella run through the AAC Tournament to give the conference two bids. But this time around, ECU won the auto bid, which made the American a one-bid conference for the first time in its relatively short history.
Uncertainty is now the word of the day for the AAC. In the long term, of course, there’s uncertainty about its place in the larger college baseball landscape as its membership is set to shift beginning in the 2024 season. But in the short term, there’s uncertainty if the last season of this current AAC iteration in 2023 will end up any different than the two seasons before it.
- Carter Spivey, RHP, East Carolina – When ECU began to have to think outside the box when it comes to managing a pitching staff last season, it was Spivey who shouldered the heaviest load on the way to winning AAC pitcher of the year honors. He had a 2.83 ERA and a 76-to-19 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 76.1 innings across 35 appearances, mostly as a long reliever.
- Griffin Merritt, OF, Cincinnati – Merritt’s fifth year was his best year at Cincinnati, as he batted .315/.382/.695 with 17 doubles, 19 home runs and 53 RBIs to win the AAC’s player of the year award. It was a massive breakout for a player who didn’t play a full season as a regular until his fourth year in the program.
- Landon Gartman, RHP, Memphis – Gartman didn’t have any issue adjusting to college baseball as a freshman. He went 7-1 with a 3.56 ERA, .175 opponent batting average and a 94-to-29 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 86 innings. The righthander is set to transfer to Mississippi State this offseason.
Most surprising team: East Carolina
East Carolina winning the league is never going to be a surprise in general, but doing so in 2022 with the way the Pirates started the season was a bit of a surprise. ECU began the season by getting swept at home by Bryant, and as late as April 1 was just 14-13 after a loss to Cincinnati to begin AAC play. But the Pirates went 33-8 from that point forward, along the way tying their best conference record as a member of the AAC (20-4), earning a top-eight seed and winning a home regional before being eliminated in heartbreaking fashion at home in a super regional. Despite a tough end to it all, it was still another special season in Greenville and it still rings true that the College World Series is in this program’s future.
Most disappointing team: South Florida
South Florida returned a ton of talent last year from the team that made a surprise run to super regionals in 2021, which gave the Bulls the appearance of a dark horse contender for the conference title, but it didn’t go that way. USF suffered injuries on the mound that set the team back early in the season and the lineup struggled to get consistent production out of hitters other than Carmine Lane and Drew Brutcher. The result was the Bulls finishing under .500 overall at 28-29 and 8-16 in conference play, which put them in last place for the second time in the last three full seasons.
Team-by-team stock watch
Central Florida (35-25, 14-10), no postseason, ???? – UCF had a solid season in general, finishing second in the conference and winning 35 games for the fourth time in the last five full seasons, but it never seriously challenged for its first regional since 2017.
Cincinnati (24-31, 12-12), no postseason, ???? – Cincinnati continues to be quietly consistent, as it finished .500 or better in AAC play for the fourth straight full season and fifth time in six full seasons while finishing in fourth place for the second year in a row.
East Carolina (46-21, 20-4), reached super regionals, ?? – The clear class of the conference once again, ECU bounced back from a 14-13 start to the season to finish in a super regional after developing into the hottest team in college baseball over the second half.
Houston (37-24, 13-11), no postseason, ?? – It might not have ended in a postseason appearance, but there’s no doubting that Houston took a step forward in 2022 by winning its most games since 2018 and finishing above .500 in league play for the first time in that span of time.
Memphis (26-29, 9-15), no postseason, ???? – In long-time coach Daron Schoenrock’s final season at the helm, Memphis played well down the stretch in winning its final two conference series but was eliminated after going 1-2 in the AAC Tournament, after which former Southern coach Kerrick Jackson was hired to fill the coaching vacancy.
South Florida (28-29, 8-16), no postseason, ?? – USF wasn’t able to capitalize on the momentum from a super regional appearance in 2021, as it finished 8-16 in AAC play and in last place in the standings for the second time in three full seasons.
Tulane (33-26-1, 11-13), no postseason, ???? – Tulane looked like a regional team early in the 2022 season but was consistently inconsistent throughout conference play, leading to a missed regional and a coaching change from Travis Jewett to Jay Uhlman.
Wichita State (21-36, 9-15), no postseason, ?? – After making big strides in 2021, Wichita State took a step back in 2022, winning just two conference series on the way to finishing sixth in the standings with a 9-15 record.
Offseason questions to answer:
- After having to rebuild the pitching staff on the fly last season due to Carson Whisenhunt’s season-long suspension and injuries along the way, how will East Carolina’s pitching staff take shape in 2023?
- In the final season of this iteration of the American, can Houston, UCF or Cincinnati challenge ECU at the top of the league standings before leaving for the Big 12, or will the new-look AAC still be searching for quality depth in 2024 and beyond?
- Will it turn out to be a slow burn in the rebuilding process or will Memphis show immediate improvement under Kerrick Jackson, the program’s first new coach since 2005?