Image credit: East Carolina righthander Garrett Saylor (Photo courtesy of ECU Media Relations)
GREENVILLE, N.C. – No. 8 East Carolina will have more impressive wins this season. It will have wins where it gets lockdown starting pitching. It will have wins where the offense will come out of the gate firing on all cylinders. It will have wins where it turns the game into a laugher in the early innings.
Precisely none of that happened on Thursday in ECU’s 5-4 win Thursday against Cincinnati to begin American Athletic Conference play. It was not a masterclass by a team capable of putting on a masterclass, but there might not be a better win to showcase why the Pirates have established themselves as the runaway favorites to win the conference this season. They didn’t really play all that well for long stretches, but they overcame it and won anyway.
Lefthander Carson Whisenhunt, who has been excellent for the most part this season, had his second straight tough start, giving up eight hits and four runs in four-plus innings, which put ECU in a 4-2 hole halfway through the game.
Give Cincinnati credit; it played well offensively early, including a perfectly-executed hit-and-run that turned into an RBI double off the bat of leadoff hitter Cole Harting, but it also just wasn’t Whisenhunt’s day.
While a short, relatively ineffective start wasn’t ideal, ECU showed quickly that it has the ability to stem the tide in situations like that and flip momentum. Righthander Garrett Saylor came on for Whisenhunt in a jam in the fifth. The Bearcats had already scored two runs in the frame and had runners on first and second with nobody out. From there, Saylor struck out three consecutive batters to end the inning.
After that, Saylor threw three more perfect innings and made it a career day. He went 12 up and 12 down against the Bearcats, striking out eight. Simply put, without him, the Pirates don’t win the game.
“(I’m) really proud of Saylor for coming in in a tough situation and maneuvering through four innings, struck out eight, just a tremendous effort by him,” coach Cliff Godwin said.
Side-winding righthander Ryder Giles came on and pitched the ninth and went three up and three down, meaning ECU relievers, on a day the team really needed it, tossed five perfect innings.
“It was really cool,” Saylor said. “My job is to get in the game and be as quick as possible, get the offense going. That’s my mindset, just get back in the dugout (and) let the offense do the work.”
The offense needed the time Thursday, but that’s the thing about this ECU lineup. It has the talent and physicality, especially in the top half of the order, to strike quickly and turn days full of frustration and struggle at the plate into wins that help you forget that it struggled at all.
The Pirates pushed two runs across in the first on RBI singles from Josh Moylan and Alec Makarewicz, but then went into a deep freeze against Cincinnati righthander Zach Segal, a three-quarters slinger who was making his first start of the season.
In fact, at times against Segal, it looked clear that the ECU lineup was pressing, most notably In the sixth. Zach Agnos led off with a walk, but he was quickly erased when Bryson Worrell bunted into a 2-6-3 double play.
Ryley Johnson got the rally started up again immediately after the double play with a double down the right field line. Ryder Giles followed with a single to right field, but Johnson was thrown out at the plate trying to score, which held the game at 4-2. Three of the four batters in the frame reached base, but ECU got nothing out of it.
But in the seventh, Cincinnati lifted Segal and ECU went to work against lefthander Conner Linn.
Thomas Francisco walked with one out, moved to second on a wild pitch and scored on an RBI double from Seth Caddell. After a groundout from Moylan, Makarewicz stepped to the plate and changed the game with one swing, a home run over the left field fence, his fourth of the season, to put ECU up for good 5-4. Just like that, the meat of the order had let itself off the hook for an otherwise uninspired performance.
“To be honest with you, Cincinnati did a much better job offensively than we did,” Godwin said. “They executed a lot better, they executed bunts, they executed hit and runs. We did not. We just were able to get a big walk, Seth doubles and then you got a big, big home run by A-Mak.”
Godwin was on one hand proud of his team battling back to get the win, but on the other hand disappointed with the way they seemed to approach the game.
“I’m proud that they found a way, that they scratched and clawed to get back into it, and I keep going back to Saylor because if he doesn’t limit that (fifth) inning, I don’t think that we would have come back and had the opportunity to do that,” he said. “We’ve got to play better. We’ve got to play more consistent. It’s amazing to me that we continue to think that we can just show up and just beat whoever we’re playing.”
From a coach’s perspective, you can understand Godwin’s frustration, and he’s right that ECU has much more potential than what it showed on Thursday.
But this performance also serves to show just how good this team is. It didn’t get stellar starting pitching. Two of its better relievers, Cam Colmore and C.J. Mayhue, were unavailable after both threw in a midweek win over North Carolina. Its offense was dormant in seven of the nine innings. It didn’t play its A game. It probably wasn’t even its B game. And yet, it was able to win with its C game.
To Godwin’s point, the Pirates won’t want to make a habit of doing that, but they showed they can on Thursday and that’s what is going to make them so tough to overcome in the AAC.