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Raucous Crowd, Team Offensive Effort Pushes ECU One Win Shy of Omaha

GREENVILLE, N.C. — Players and coaches often talk about how a particularly raucous crowd can make a difference for the home team, and because they’re the ones on the field in those situations, we have to believe them.

But most of the time, the benefits of that kind of crowd support are tough to see with the naked eye and ethereal in nature. Perhaps a young opposing pitcher gets rattled in the environment, a hitter isn’t quite as steady-handed at the plate in a two-strike count or a defender makes a mental mistake in the moment.

Most crowds aren’t the crowd that East Carolina and Texas played in front of on Friday, though.

“It’s a difference maker,” said East Carolina coach Cliff Godwin. “I keep saying this, (and) I’ve coached a lot of different places, but the fans are on top of you.”

When Godwin says the fans at ECU are on top of you, he means it in a literal sense as much as a figurative one.

The tops of the dugouts are at ground level with the front row of seats behind them, so ECU fans routinely stand up and make noise on top of the dugouts to celebrate big strikeouts, home runs and all manner of important plays.

Fans are also lined up six or eight deep behind the outfield fence in an an area known as “The Jungle,” and because the outfield fence is short, the front row of those fans are able to actually lean out over the playing field, bang on the padding on the wall and just generally make themselves heard by the nearest opposing outfielder.

And Friday, those fans in The Jungle, part of a Clark-LeClair Stadium-record 5,723 fans in attendance, made their presence known in a tangible way that was clear to even the naked eye.

Leading off the bottom of the eighth inning with ECU clinging to an 8-7 lead, third baseman Alec Makarewicz lifted a fly ball to deep left-center field.

Texas left fielder Eric Kennedy was positioned closer to the ball, and after drifting for a few steps, he appeared to have it measured. Center fielder Douglas Hodo III, however, wasn’t letting up in his pursuit of the ball, and neither player backed off, likely because they couldn’t hear each other over the roar of a crowd that was whipped into a frenzy.

So instead of a routine fly out, the ball ricocheted off of Hodo’s glove as he awkwardly leapt in front of Kennedy, who by that point was camped under the ball, and went over the wall for a solo home run.

“I knew it was going to be a wall-scraper, but luckily the fans were screaming as loud as they were,” Makarewicz said. “They jumped up and I guess hit each other and just went right over.”

That took the crowd volume up a notch, as you might imagine, and the Pirates used it as fuel to put together a five-run eighth inning that broke open the game and handed them a 13-7 win.

The crowd was fired up all game long, but it doesn’t seem like a coincidence that it was particularly juiced leading up the Makarewicz home run, because in the half-inning prior, a dazzling defensive play by Makarewicz saved the tying run from scoring.

With Texas catcher Silas Ardoin at third base and two outs, Hodo hit a scorched ground ball to third. Makarewicz, who was in a couple of steps to protect against a bunt by the speedy Hodo, dove to his left, picked it clean and threw him out at first.

“Just had some good prep steps and luckily I was in rhythm whenever he hit it,” Makarewicz said.

As much as anything else, and in spite of it being a fairly offensive game, ECU’s defense coming up big was a theme.

In the fifth, shortstop Zach Agnos left his feet to rob Hodo of a hit that might have been extra bases had it rolled toward the gap, given Hodo’s wheels.

In the sixth, with two Longhorn runners on, relief ace Carter Spivey got a ground ball off the bat of Mitchell Daly and the infield turned it perfectly for a 4-6-3 double play. In the seventh, in a nearly identical situation, Spivey got a ground ball off the bat of right fielder Murphy Stehly that Makarewicz gloved before touching the third base bag and throwing to first for a twin killing.

In addition to those clutch defensive plays, ECU didn’t make a single error, upholding the reputation that comes with being a team fielding .984 on the season.

“(Our) defense was incredible, man. We always preach defense at practice,” Agnos said. “It wins championships, it really does.”

The ECU offense also took advantage of Texas starter Pete Hansen not looking like himself from the very beginning.

After being spotted a 2-0 lead in the first on a Stehly two-run home run, Hansen, who came into the game having walked just 18 batters all season, walked Agnos to lead off the game and three batters later found himself down 3-2 after a run-scoring passed ball and a two-run single for ECU right fielder Jacob Jenkins-Cowart.

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“We knew if we could get (Hansen) in the stretch that his stuff would play down just a tick. Zach (Agnos) was down 0-2, if I’m not mistaken, to lead off the game and worked a walk,” Godwin said. “That was a big walk, then (Lane) Hoover got a push bunt (single), Bryson (Worrell) then singled, then J-C’s big two RBIs there. I thought that was very key because the momentum swung back into our dugout and the fans got back into it after we were down two.”

Though Hansen settled down by retiring nine straight after the Jenkins-Cowart single, he couldn’t completely escape, as ECU got him for three more runs in the fourth on a two-run homer for second baseman Jacob Starling and an Agnos RBI single.

All told, the Pirates scored six runs, five earned, on seven hits in four innings against the Texas lefthander. It was Hansen’s shortest outing of the season, the only time this season in which the total number of runs allowed has been greater than his innings pitched and his three strikeouts also represented a season-low total.

“He just didn’t have his command that he normally has,” said Texas coach David Pierce. “It’s probably one of the worst starts he’s had. (It’s) just what it is. (I) know he was ready to pitch. They did a nice job of laying off some borderline pitches and fighting with two strikes. Credit their hitters. Just not Pete’s day today.”

After playing add-on several more times throughout the game, this will also go down as one of ECU’s better team offensive games of the season. The 15 hits are the fifth-highest total this season and the 13 runs are tied for third-highest.

Eight different ECU batters had at least one hit, and five had at least two hits, led by Worrell, who was 4-for-5 with a home run of his own.

The next win this weekend, should it come, would be a historic one for the East Carolina program.

That one might be tougher to get, as clinching wins always are, especially with Texas’ back against the wall. But you have to like ECU’s chances, especially with nearly 6,000 extra players lining the field ready to make an impact any way they can.

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