By Steve Parkhurst
The teams with the top two records in the American Athletic Conference met in Greenville, North Carolina this weekend as the Tulane Green Wave made a visit to the East Carolina Pirates. The host Pirates are ranked #14 by College Baseball Nation, while the visiting Green Wave were ranked outside the top twenty-five at #36 entering weekend play.
Friday saw a match-up of aces that did not live up to the billing. Tulane’s Braden Olthoff (5-1) took the mound against East Carolina starter Gavin Williams (6-0).
East Carolina plated the first run of the game in the second inning as they played small ball to set up a Seth Caddell ground out to third to push across the first run. Keyed by back-to-back home runs by Bryson Worrell (5) and Caddell (12), the Pirates added three runs in the fourth to take a 4-0 lead.
Olthoff was done after four innings with his team trailing. The Pirates wasted no time getting a run off the next Tulane pitcher, scoring one in the fifth.
Tulane finally got on the board in the sixth, scoring two on singles by Bennett Lee and Frankie Neimann and loading the bases hoping for more. Gavin Williams exited after 5 1/3 innings pitched with nine strikeouts, and close to one hundred pitches, before loading the bases with one out. Reliever Cam Colmore got the final two outs and left the bases loaded as East Carolina led 5-2.
As a light rain fell during the sixth, the Pirates loaded the bases and added a run on a walk. A two-run home run by Connor Norby (11) in the seventh pushed the Pirates advantage to 8-2, part of a 4-for-5 four RBI afternoon for Norby. Later in the same frame, as the Pirates continued to collect base hits, they added another run and led 9-2 going to the eighth. Tulane put together a two-run eighth to cut the deficit to 9-4.
Any hope Tulane had of a late-inning comeback was dashed when the Pirates loaded the bases in the eighth and slowly knocked in run after run. Josh Grosz took the mound to close out the ninth for East Carolina.
Williams remained perfect on the season as he improved his record to 7-0. Tulane used six pitchers out of the bullpen in the 12-4 defeat on Friday, which was problematic with a doubleheader scheduled for Saturday and a Sunday game still to follow.
Saturday’s first game was scoreless into the third when Tulane got the scoring started with two outs. The Pirates responded in their half of the inning with four runs to take a 4-1 lead.
Tulane added a run in the fifth to cut the lead East Carolina lead to 4-2. Green Wave starter Jack Aldrich worked five innings, gave up seven hits and was tagged for four runs while he struck out five.
The Pirates plated two more in the seventh to take a 6-2 lead. Tulane added two in the eighth to get back to within two, but a Norby solo home run stretch the East Carolina lead back to 7-4 in the eighth. East Carolina closed out game one of the doubleheader, led by Matt Bridges, who recorded the final four outs without allowing a hit and striking out two.
Trent Johnson went three innings in relief of starter Aldrich, the only two pitchers who pitched in Saturday’s first game after Tulane used seven total pitchers in Friday’s game.
Tulane jumped out quickly and took a 2-0 lead in the first inning against Pirates game two starter Jake Kuchmaner. East Carolina roughed up Tulane starter Donovan Benoit for three runs in the third, led by a Zach Agnos (5) two-run home run to right center. Both squads added a run in their second inning.
Kuchmaner exited in the third after just thirty-three pitches having allowed three runs but his team leading by one.
Tulane added two in the fifth to take a 5-4 lead before the Pirates manufactured two runs of their own in the sixth as yet another lead change put them in front 6-5.
The Green Wave retook the lead for good on a no-doubt two-run blast to left from Ethan Groff in the eighth. Tulane reliever Keagan Gillies pitched the final two innings and Tulane walked away winners, 7-6.
With Saturday's result being an even win-loss split, East Carolina head coach Cliff Godwin saw mostly good in his team's performance on the day, "We didn't play clean enough baseball to win game two." But Godwin quickly pivoted, "It's the best our guys have been with energy. You get down 2-0, then you put up a three spot, they score a run, we score a run, our guys were fighting for sure."
"We split and we're 2-1 so we got a chance to win the series tomorrow. You put yourself in a situation to win the series against the first-place team and that's all you can ask for going into Sunday," Godwin said.
East Carolina had another task in front of them going into Sunday. Left-hander Carson Whisenhunt got the mound start, but he was coming back from injury, having not started since April 9th, so he was on a set pitch count. This meant Cliff Godwin and his staff might be going to the bullpen early and often in a series that had already taxed the pitching staff.
East Carolina struck first in the finale, scoring one in the first off Tulane starter Tyler Hoffman. They added a run in the third on a solo home run off the bat of Thomas Francisco (9) to expand the lead to 2-0.
Tulane was scoreless into the fourth but, after Whisenhunt’s departure at the end of three innings pitched, the Green Wave used a single by Chase Engelhard to get back to within a run. As they often did throughout the weekend, the Pirates got the run back in their half of the fourth on a single to center by Caddell for a 3-1 lead.
Thomas Francisco (3-for-5) added a second home run in the fifth, a pitch that was absolutely crushed for his tenth home run of the season. Moments later, a two-run home run by Alec Makarewicz increased the Pirates lead to 6-1 and chased Hoffman from the game.
Going into Sunday’s contest, in 2021 East Carolina was 24-1 when leading after the fifth inning, Sunday's five run lead going into the sixth was a good omen for the Pirates.
The Pirates tacked on a run after the seventh inning stretch. Then Agnos led off the Pirate eighth with an opposite-field home run to right. Then, after two one-out walks, a passed ball plated a second run in the inning and East Carolina led 9-1.
Colmore, who took the mound for the Pirates in the eighth, stayed in to get the first two outs of the ninth before Bridges took the ball to close out the Green Wave and preserve the 9-1 win and the 3-1 series win. East Carolina used eight pitchers in the game, seven pitchers for the final six innings, but with a multiple-run cushion for most of the day, it did not matter.
East Carolina took the lead in the American Athletic Conference standings by mere percentage points with an overall record of 33-10 and 15-5 in the AAC, to Tulane’s 25-7 overall record with a 14-5 AAC record.