St. Thomas, V.I. duo (Deshorn Lake and Jharel Cotton) looks to lead a young but talented staff in 2012.
Feb. 14, 2012
By Sam Hickman
The 2011 East Carolina baseball team reached its second Regional Final in three years behind one of the nation's best pitching staffs. After seeing their season come to an end against overall No. 1 seed Virginia in the Charlottesville Regional, the Pirates (41-21) finished the campaign with the seventh-ranked team earned run average in the country at a 2.67 clip. Hurlers such as Seth Maness, Brad Mincey, Mike Wright, and Seth Simmons made it difficult for opposing offenses to post big numbers against the Pirates. The vaunted collection of arms led the Purple and Gold to a final national ranking of No. 25 by Baseball America and No. 29 by National Collegiate Baseball Writers of America.
Fast forward to today and the Pirates are just a few days away from the first pitch of the 2012 season opener. When UW-Milwaukee strolls into Greenville this weekend, it will not meet that same stable of arms. The Pirates lost five of its top pitchers to graduation or the Major League Baseball Amateur Draft, or both: Maness, Mincey, Simmons, Wright, and Shawn Armstrong. The pitchers combined to go an impressive 31-14 last season and were led by Maness, who finished the year 10-3 with an eye-popping 1.71 ERA. Mincey finished the year with a 1.57 ERA, a ledger which landed him among the nation's best (ninth nationally). Wright was good enough to be drafted early in the third round and Simmons capped off an illustrious career as a closer by becoming ECU's all-time leader in saves.
It's safe to say that the Pirates will look to their experienced position players for additional run support as the pitching looks to find its stride early in the year. East Carolina lost a cast of throwers who made up over 80-percent of the 562 total innings pitched in 2011. As for the offensive outlook, ECU returns eight of nine starters from the 2011 squad, including senior catcher Zach Wright, who elected to return to Greenville despite being selected in sixth-round by the Philadelphia Phillies in the MLB Draft. The final outfield position is the only spot left vacant as ECU is tasked with replacing four-year starter Trent Whitehead. The infield sees the return of first baseman John Wooten, second baseman Mike Ussery, shortstop Jack Reinheimer, and senior third baseman Corey Thompson, as well as Wright behind the plate. Ben Fultz and Philip Clark will most likely begin the season as two of the three starters in the outfield - their positions are yet to be determined - and the final outfield slot remains contested, although many options exist. The infielders and outfielders will be examined more closely on Wednesday and Thursday.
Undoubtedly, ECU will turn to senior Kevin Brandt to lead a young unit. Brandt, who has made a mark during his first three seasons as a big-game pitcher, tossed 91.2 innings of work in 2011, almost 70 innings more than any other Pirate (Joseph Hughes was the next closest with 22 frames). While Brandt may have snuck up on opponents the last three years throwing in a rotation with names like Maness, those days are over. Brandt is expected to serve in a role in which he is unfamiliar, the staff ace in-charge of providing the necessary consistency in an otherwise talented but inexperienced rotation. Pitching Coach Dan Roszel noted the impact that Brandt could have on the younger pitchers and how much pressure he may face in adjusting to new responsibilities as leader of the personnel.
"Kevin probably has to take that No. 1 or No. 2 spot in the rotation and get us deep into ballgames, certainly," Roszel stated. "He has always been a No. 3 guy who you could throw out there and count on, but now there may be a little added pressure. At the same time, the only pressure he will feel is what he puts on himself. We just need Kevin to do what he does. We need him to throw strikes and keep us in ballgames. He has to take it pitch-by-pitch, which is our philosophy with all pitchers."
A native of Fuquay Varina, N.C., Brandt finished 2011 with a 7-3 record and stellar 2.26 ERA. The southpaw appeared in 19 games - second most on the team behind Simmons' 29 - and started 11 of those contests. Only Wright and Maness threw more innings than Brandt. The demands of stepping into a new role have excited Brandt thus far.
"I try to help the young guys as much as possible," said Brandt, who has pitched in two Regionals and a Super Regional. "Mostly, I try to lead by example. When I do have something to tell the other pitchers, I try to keep it positive. I don't like to criticize anyone; I just try to encourage everyone. We lost a lot of veteran guys, so we need the young guys to step up. There's no way around that. I have all the confidence in the world in them though. They'll keep us in games and we have a nice lineup behind us. It should be fun to watch."
After Brandt, several discussions have come up as to who would fill the weekend rotation. While Coach Roszel stated that nothing has been "set in stone", there are likely candidates. Roszel noted that junior college transfers Jharel Cotton and Andy Smithmyer should compete for action, while Tyler Joyner and Austin Chrismon will also push for weekend starting nods.
Cotton and Smithmyer are coming off highly successful junior college careers and were key signees for the Pirates, who were faced with a depleted roster. Smithmyer suits up for the Pirates after helping Potomac State to the 2011 NJCAA Junior College World Series. He garnered Most Outstanding Pitching honors after posting a 2-0 record and defeating Central Arizona, the No. 1 ranked team in the country. Roszel expects both pitchers to contribute immediately, although no roles have been defined. Cotton said that he feels "a little pressure" as a transfer who is being asked to eat up innings for a perennial Conference USA contender.
"I'm a first-year guy here and there are a lot of expectations," Cotton expressed. "I expect a lot out of myself though. The only thing I can do is go out there and try to give this team a chance to win games. I expect to perform to the best of my ability. I don't want to try to be too good, but do everything under my power to help this team win games. That's what matters."
Joyner, a lefty who sat out the 2011 season, is also someone that the Pirate coaching staff approaches to replace certain holes in the rotation. Chrismon finished last year with a 1-0 record and sported a 1.93 ERA, though he only appeared in 10 games. Among the returning pitchers, Chrismon is the only Pirate (other than Brandt) that started more than one game on the mound a year ago.
"We're working these young guys hard. The goal is to work them hard," Roszel said. "We want them to understand the little things. We have to teach some of these guys how to compete. We did lose a lot of arms (from last year's team), but the game never changes. We have to get the young guys in there and get their feet wet. We're going to get after it and trust the fact that we're going to win games somehow, someway."
ECU does expect the return of Jake Harris, an electric left-hander who got off to a blistering start last season before his campaign was curtailed by Tommy John surgery. Harris collected two saves and boasted a 1.15 ERA prior to the injury. In only 15.2 innings of work, Harris struck out 21 batters, walked only six, and did not surrender an extra-base hit. Roszel said that Harris was on schedule with rehabilitation, but the team certainly wouldn't rush his return. He noted that if Harris did return healthy and the staff received steady contributions from other new faces, the pitching corps had unlimited potential.
Roszel on Harris: "Jake is progressing. He's doing a great job with it. Don't know exactly when he'll be ready, but he's on schedule. He can throw his offspeed pitches now, which is big. He's the guy who can put the icing on the cake. If he can come back and pitch like he did at the beginning of last year, this group could be special. We definitely won't rush him. When he's ready, he's ready. We won't risk anything with him, but we're looking forward to having him back."
Other returning pitchers who experienced action in 2011 are Joseph Hughes and Tanner Merritt. Hughes appeared in 18 games (one start) and compiled a 4.09 ERA in 22.0 innings of work. Hughes pitched admirably in his lone start of the season against No. 14 North Carolina (Apr. 27) when he allowed three runs (one earned) on two hits with a pair of walks and one strikeout in a season high 3.2 innings of work. He is expected to begin 2012 as a member of the bullpen. Merritt returns to the staff after appearing in six contests last year. Utility player Drew Reynolds (two appearances) and senior Lance Honeycutt (three appearances) also saw action in relief.
Additional members of the staff are John Allen, Tyler Bolton, Dylan Dickens, Ryan Gupton, Jeff Hoffman, D.J. Jauss, DeShorn Lake, David Lucroy, and Dario Santangelo. The list includes several names with impressive credentials, most notably Lake, who signed with the Pirates despite being drafted in the 12th round of the 2011 MLB Draft by the Boston Red Sox.
Roszel was quick to point out that the young arms would have several opportunities to show the coaches their capabilities in game situations.
"Every year you have to get guys experience. You can't sacrifice winning games though," he explained bluntly. "If you can pitch, you're going to get more innings, it's that simple. If you can't control your body on the mound and do all the little things, you won't pitch. We're going to send arms out there and get after guys. We're not into all the little matchup scenarios or anything like that. These guys are good enough to go out there and compete and go after guys. That's what we're going to do."
Perhaps the most vital, yet undervalued component of the 2012 pitching staff isn't a pitcher. The Pirate hurlers will enjoy their backstop, as All-Conference USA performer and two-time Johnny Bench Award candidate Zach Wright elected to return for his senior season. The pitching inexperience could have been exacerbated by the departure of Wright as new arms would be throwing to inexperienced catchers. However, with Wright's return, Roszel noted that Wright offers a calming presence behind the plate, a factor vital to his staff's success.
Roszel on Wright: "We have a senior catcher and a very young pitching staff. He's the key back there to keep these guys focused. He can see what these guys are doing on the mound and sometimes give them better advice than I can. He's talented. He's a sixth-round draft pick. Who wouldn't want to pitch to Zach behind the plate? He's strong defensively and he has cannon back there. He's a calming presence and our pitchers gain confidence knowing he's there. He's been around the game long enough and it's a great feeling to have him and it makes our job a lot easier having basically another coach on the field."
While the new-look unit eagerly anticipates throwing to Wright, the catcher's confidence in the group is hard to miss.
"I don't think it's a matter of how good they could be. It's a matter of them believing it and knowing how good they're going to be," Wright shared. "The sky is the limit for this group. I'm looking forward to being a part of it."
Last year's squad hung its hat on great pitching and timely hitting. The 2012 Pirates will try to back up their young staff with one of the most experienced starting lineups in the country. Still, the chief goal remains winning games.
"If you take last year and spin it all the way around, it's this team," Roszel finished. "Our pitching picked up our offense at times, and this year our offense might be in situations where it has to pick us up. The main thing is that we score one more run than the other team. It doesn't matter if it's 2-1 or 9-8."
Tomorrow, Part II of the baseball preview will take a look at this year's infield.