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ECU loses finale, but celebrates title

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East Carolina players pass around the American Athletic Conference regular season trophy after their game against Memphis on May 18, 2019.

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By RONNIE WOODWARD
The Daily Reflector

Saturday, May 18, 2019

East Carolina lost its final regular season baseball game of this season, yet some fans stuck around at sunny and steamy Clark-LeClair Stadium after Memphis’ 10-9 victory on Saturday afternoon to see the Pirates collect their trophies and to show appreciation for what ECU accomplished beginning Feb. 15 with a doubleheader sweep of Radford.

The No. 7 Pirates ran away with their first-ever American Athletic Conference regular season championship, setting a new record Friday night for most AAC wins in a season with 20, and their 42-13 overall record is the best at this point in a season since the 2004 Pirates were 47-9 entering the Conference USA tournament. That team won an NCAA regional in Kinston before losing a super regional at South Carolina.

This ECU club, which will face AAC No. 8 seed Wichita State in the first round of the American tournament Tuesday in Clearwater, Fla., was 8-5 when a win at Ole Miss on March 6 sparked a crucial 13-1 stretch for the rest of March and to set the tone for the conference title.

“We had the same talent level from Game 1 to whatever it is now, but just flipping that switch and relationships and trusting everybody is the reason why we’ve had a good season,” said pitcher and outfielder Alec Burleson, a candidate for the AAC player of the year award that will be announced Monday.

Saturday’s attendance was 3,376 for a game that was dictated by two three-run home runs by Memphis (27-26, 10-13) offsetting two homers launched to right field by Burleson.

It was the regular season finale, but doubtful as the Pirates’ final home contest of the year. ECU is on track to host NCAA postseason games at Clark-LeClair, beginning May 31, for the second straight year.

“I’ll reflect when the season is over and I’m happy for our kids and the fans and happy to be part of such a great group and organization, because our kids have fought since Day 1,” ECU fifth-year coach Cliff Godwin said. “We haven’t met all of our goals. We’ve met a few of our goals and that’s great, but we haven’t met all of our goals.”

Burleson erased an early Memphis edge with a two-run home run in the bottom of the third, making it 4-3 Pirates.

The first big swing by the Tigers gave them the lead back, 7-4, in the fifth. Gavin Williams replaced starter Tyler Smith on the mound when it was 4-4 with two outs and a runner on base, but a walk issued by Williams and then Alec Trela homer lined to the left field corner on a breaking pitch made it 7-4 Memphis.

Another three-run home run by the visitors, this time hit by slugger Hunter Goodman off Zach Barnes to give Goodman 66 RBIs for the season, made it 10-5 in the sixth.

ECU rallied and cut the deficit to 10-9 on Bryant Packard’s two-out single in the bottom of the ninth that scored pinch runner Christian Jayne and moved fellow pinch runner Dusty Baker to third base. UM closer Colton Neel then sealed his 10th save on a Brady Lloyd groundout.

“I thought we fought hard and if we fight like that, then we are going to win a lot of ball games,” Packard said. “I think we had a really good weekend and did a lot of things right, even though we lost today, and do have momentum going into Clearwater. We’re just excited to get back there and win it again like last year.”

Smith (7-1) was charged with the loss and five runs on five hits with four strikeouts and two walks in 4.2 innings.

Still, ECU’s weekend rotation of Jake Agnos, Jake Kuchmaner and Smith finished the regular season with a combined 22-4 record. Agnos is the front-runner to earn AAC pitcher of the year.

Burleson was 3-for-5 with three runs scored and three RBIs in Saturday’s finale. Designated hitter Thomas Francisco capped his productive series by going 2-for-3 with an RBI and two walks.

Contact Ronnie Woodward at rwoodward@reflector.com, 252-329-9592 and follow@RonnieW11 on Twitter.

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