2007 East Carolina Baseball Preview

Go C-USA! Shane Mathews
Go C-USA!
Shane Mathews
Go C-USA!

Jan. 25, 2007

East Carolina second-year head coach Billy Godwin and his staff will look to build on last year's 33-26 performance.

With the loss of nine seniors from last year's squad, Godwin will turn to a mix of veterans and newcomers to lead the Pirates back into postseason play.

The 2007 Pirates will play a school-record 38 home games in Lewis Field at Clark-LeClair Stadium, which includes 21 consecutive home games from Feb. 21 to March 28. They will host a pair of tournaments, the ECU Invitational and the Fourth Annual Keith LeClair Classic.

Also on the 2007 docket are 28 games against 11 different teams that participated in the 2006 NCAA Tournament, which include three College World Series participants in Cal State Fullerton (2004 National Champions), Rice (2003 National Champions) and 2006 National Runner-up North Carolina.

Catchers
One of the two major voids the Pirates will have to fill this year will be behind the plate. Gone is 2006 All-American and Johnny Bench Award winner Jake Smith, who led the team in seven offensive categories. In 192 career games, Smith batted .300 with 29 home runs and 135 RBI. Heading into spring practice, Godwin will turn to a pair of transfers in David Forbes and Corey Kemp to provide leadership and stability behind the plate.

"Heading into fall practice the catching position was a huge concern for me after losing one of the top rated catchers in the country in Jake Smith," said Godwin. "After our fall workouts, I would say that this is one my least concerns now."

Forbes, a Greenville, N.C. product from J.H. Rose High School, spent the last three years at Campbell University where he played in 124 career games and batted .260 with 13 home runs and 78 RBI. Last year with the Camels, Forbes had a breakout year as he blasted a career-high eight home runs and batted .300 with 43 RBI. He is expected to help pick up the offensive pop in the bottom half of the Pirates lineup.

Kemp, a transfer from Young Harris Junior College is also in the mix for the starting catching spot. The junior out of Franklin, Tenn., earned first-team Georgia Junior College Athletic Association (GJCAA) All-Conference honors after batting .393 with four home runs and 45 RBI. Kemp has shown signs of versatility and athleticism during fall practice and could also see action at the hot corner.

"With Forbes, we have a solid guy who has experience and can step in and help us right away," Godwin added. "Another guy who I think can certainly get equal playing time is Corey Kemp. He has shown a lot of athleticism behind the plate and is really coming into his own as a catcher."

Freshman Bobby Fowler is also vying for playing time. With a pair of upperclassmen ahead of him, Fowler has the luxury of easing his way into the fast pace life of college athletics.

"Bobby had an unbelievable fall for us," said Godwin. "He is in a great learning situation, where he's not expected to go in and catch for 40-plus games, which could be tough for a freshman to do right out of the gate. He is our catcher of the future."

Infielders
In the infield, the Pirates will have a new face patrolling first base. With the departure of second-team All-Conference USA selection Adam Witter to graduation, Godwin will look to the sophomore duo of Stephen Batts and Brandon Henderson to pick up the void.

At first glimpse, it looks like Batts has the inside track on being the starter with his past experience at first. A year ago the Wilmington, N.C. native batted a team second-best .336 with one home run, 15 RBI and 26 runs scored and was the Pirates top utility man starting seven games at first, one at second, eight at third, 18 in left field and two as the designated hitter.

Henderson saw extensive action as a true freshman last year starting 33-of-48 games played. He batted .326, the fourth-best average on the squad, with four home runs and 24 RBI.

"Stephen had a great year last year overall and had a superior fall, probably our best fall player offensively out of anybody we had," said Godwin. "His athleticism lets him play second or third and that led us to believe that he can do some great things at first base. Henderson has shown tremendous improvement playing at first, considering he just picked it up in the fall. Between both guys, we feel that we have two great options at the corner."

As for the rest of the infield, Godwin welcomes back starters Ryan Wood at second, Dale Mollenhauer at shortstop and Jake Dean at the hot corner.

As a C-USA All-Freshman performer in 2006, Wood hit .289 with three home runs, 23 RBI and 27 runs scored. After seeing action in a reserve role in the first seven games, Wood cracked the starting lineup against Cal State Fullerton and never looked back as he started the final 41 games played. Wood did not participate in fall practice due to his recovery from labrum surgery, but he is expected to back to full strength in January and hit in the sixth or seventh spot in the batting order.

Dale Mollenhauer will once again man the shortstop position, something he has done over the last two seasons. As a freshman he split time between second base and shortstop when former Pirate Billy Richardson went down. In two seasons with the Pirates, he has started 107-of-115 games played. A year ago his batting average dropped to .292, but he set career-highs in home runs (7), hits (69) and runs scored (43). You can expect to see Mollenhauer grace the top of the lineup, probably in the two spot.

Rounding out the infield at third will be senior Jake Dean. As a junior, Dean batted .311 with a pair of round trippers and 17 RBI in 47 games. Defensively he posted a .964 fielding percentage, committing three errors in 84 chances. Dean entered fall practice 15 pounds lighter and showed the coaching staff a glimpse of his power after hitting seven home runs during camp.

"I am very pleased with what we have in place heading into the season," said Godwin. "With the exception of first base, we return all of our starters. We have a core of guys who are older and more experienced that played everyday in a difficult conference. They have come back as better players and are being pushed by our younger players."

As for the reserves, Godwin expects a dose of healthy competition at each position. Drew Schieber will be the Pirates top utility guy for the 2007 season. Last year he started 30-of-47 games played making 15 starts at second and third. Pirate fans can look for him to roam the infield as he can play second, third and has added shortstop to his repertoire of defensive duties.

Broc Sutton, an Edenton, N.C. native, was the biggest surprise for the coaching staff this fall. The two-time all-state selection is expected to see extensive action as Mollenhauer's top back up. Kemp, who could see action at catcher, will also platoon as the back-up to Jake Dean at third base.

Outfield
ECU returns more experience in the outfield with projected starters Harrison Eldridge, Ryan Tousley and Jamie Ray all back after seeing time in the lineup last year.

Eldridge, a 5-7 junior, again returns as the Pirates most experienced outfielder, having started 103-of-116 career games played. This season Eldridge will move from right field, a spot he has covered the last two seasons, to patrolling center field. The Knoxville, Tenn. native tied for second on the team with a .336 average while also scoring a team-best 44 runs.

In all of the outfield shifts, Ray will move from left field to right. After batting .300 in 46 games with 21 runs scored during his sophomore campaign, Ray found his offensive stride in the summer as he batted .350 with 63 hits, 12 doubles and 34 RBI with the Martinsville Mustangs of the Coastal Plain League.

After spending much of the 2006 season as the Pirates designated hitter, Ryan Tousley will see plenty of action in left field. The 6-1 senior batted .285 with six homers and 29 RBI in 50 games. Depending on what the Pirates are facing, Tousley could move over to right field in place of Ray with Trent Ashcraft playing left.

"Tousley really worked hard this fall on his outfield play," Godwin added. "He is a big guy that has deceptive speed. With his power and defensive skills, Tousley will see action either in left or as a DH, depending on what kind of opponent we are facing."

Along with Ashcraft (Brentwood, Tenn.), newcomers Mark Letchworth (Greenville, N.C.) and Devin Harris (Gastonia, N.C.) will serve as the team's back-up outfielders. Ashcraft, a 6-0 transfer from Young Harris Junior College, will serve a multitude of roles in left field or center. When Tousley is penciled in as the designated hitter Ashcraft will likely get the start in left.

Designated Hitter
Sophomore Brandon Henderson will likely start the season as the primary designated hitter for Coach Godwin. Other possibilities at the DH spot include Kyle Roller and Tousley. Roller, a 6-2, 240 pound freshman, was a career .430 hitter with 16 home runs at Richmond Senior High School.

Starting Pitchers
For the first time in a while, the Pirates enter a season with a healthy pitching rotation. Back on the mound are two-year letter winners T.J. Hose and Dustin Sasser, and they will be joined by senior Jeff Ostrander.

Hose enters the season as the Pirates ace and Friday night starter after posting a 3-4 record with a 3.88 ERA in 67 1/3 innings. He finished the season with 51 strikeouts, 27 walks and allowed 29 earned runs. Hose also saw limited action coming out of the bull pen making four relief appearances.

Jeff Ostrander, who worked as the Pirates' top starter early in 2005, is scheduled to be the Saturday starter for ECU. After missing most of the 2005 season (Tommy John surgery) and all of 2006 with a redshirt, Ostrander has come back stronger and should give Godwin a solid No. 2 pitcher in the weekend rotation.

Rounding out the weekend starters will be veteran lefty Dustin Sasser, who posted a 5-7 record with a 4.55 ERA in 85 innings of work with 52 strikeouts.

"Our starting three has a lot of experience at a high level of competition," said Godwin. "T.J. is as solid as they get on the mound and we are counting on him to get us going. After missing the better part of the last two years, Jeff looks to be back and better than I ever remember seeing him. He had and unbelievable fall and I'm looking forward to see what he can do. Sasser is a guy that started every game for us on the weekend's last year and has tons of experience. In the fall, he came back with flying colors and looks to be better than we saw last year."

With a bunch of midweek games in '07, Zach Cooper, Mike Anderson, Josh Dowdy and Bailey Daniels could get spot starts.

Relief Pitchers
One problem the Pirates faced last season was finding an effective closer to shutdown opponents late in the game. Senior Jason Neitz filled that void admirably appearing in 24 games with a 2-1 record, one save and a team-best 3.06 ERA. He struck out 22 batters and walked eight, while opposing hitters batted .246 against him.

This year will be different as Godwin has moved former starter Shane Mathews into the closers role. In 2006, Mathews posted a 5-3 record with a 4.73 ERA and lead the pitching staff in strikeouts with 75 and walks 19. Five of his 19 appearances came in a relief role and none was more impressive than when he picked up his lone save against Tulane in the Conference USA Tournament.

"We think by moving Shane to the closing position that we can shorten the game and bring in an elite guy late in the game," Godwin added. "He has tremendous stuff and a great demeanor. Over the summer and fall he has added about 10 pounds of muscle and is one of our best pitchers right now."

Senior Mike Flye, who is also more accustomed to relief work, returns to the bullpen as a setup man after making 11 appearances. Joining Flye and Neitz will be juniors Brett Butts, Bailey Daniels, Cody Leggett, Chris Powell and Josh Rulman, as well as three freshmen in Chase Hooper, Joe O'Malley and Shane Small.

"We have plenty of depth from both sides of the mound this year," said Godwin. "In order to be successful at this level, you have to experience and depth to get to the closer. And I feel that this group will give us the ability to create great match-ups out of the bullpen."

 

 

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