It was an in-state rivalry game. It was a matchup of two top-15 teams. It was a game that should have challenged the Pirates more than their conference schedule has.
4,023 fans packed Boshamer Stadium in Chapel Hill for a very competitive game, but one never surfaced. No. 9 ECU got out to a six-run lead in the first inning thanks to a Jake Washer grand slam and never was in any real danger in its 9-5 defeat of No. 12 UNC on Wednesday.
“That first inning just allowed us to get some distance from them and they couldn’t really do anything on offense except sit back and hit,” ECU head coach Cliff Godwin said. “I thought that was huge. Obviously Washer’s big blow (was huge), but continuing to add on was huge.”
The one thing that pushed ECU (37-11) ahead of the Tar Heels (35-13) was Washer’s grand slam in the first inning that broke the game open to 6-0. Outside of that one swing of the bat, it was a 5-5 game. UNC even had plenty of opportunities to cut the lead down but hit just 2-for-14 with runners in scoring position and 4-for-20 with runners on base.
ECU now has won four games in a row since losing the series finale against Tulane. The Pirates are up to No. 3 in college baseball RPI rankings after the defeat of the Tar Heels. And on the other side, a UNC team that had a home record of 29-3 coming in has lost two seasons in a row to the Pirates in Chapel Hill.
Making the rivalry, even more, a little one-sided recently is the fact that ECU fans packed into the stadium and made its presence known, even breaking out in a couple of Purple-Gold chants.
“We knew how it was going to be. It was a big crowd for us and we could hear it. That was awesome. We were able to hear the Purple and Gold chant, and that just shows we have the best fans in the country,” Washer said.
It was a break in AAC play for ECU, but the Pirates return to conference play this weekend as they travel to play a weekend series against Wichita State.
UNC starting pitcher Andrew Grogan imploded. Grogan got just one out and allowed six runs, five earned, on three hits and two walks.
The bases were loaded for Washer because of a leadoff single, an infield error, a walk and then an infield single and a bases-loaded walk that already made it 2-0. Washer first career grand slam broke the game open, and then Dusty Baker then got out bunting for the first out of the game. Grogan then hits Brady Lloyd and Ryder Giles back-to-back before exiting.
Grogan had given up just one run in his last 13.2 innings before the six-run outing against the Pirates. He peaked with a start when he gave up one run in a 7.2 inning outing against Coastal Carolina.
Where Grogan failed, ECU starting pitcher Alec Burleson did not. Burleson got the start with the plan of having a pitch count restriction and a planned bullpen day, which has become the norm. Burleson went above and beyond, throwing four innings and allowing just two hits and one earned run. Burleson ended up throwing 66 pitches in the outing.
“It was awesome just knowing you have that lead and can fill the zone up a little more,” Burleson said. “A six-run deficit is very hard to come back from.”
ECU got the bases loaded, one of the many times they did so in the night, the next inning. Turner Brown capitalized on an unusually shifted infield by floating a single over where the shortstop would have been to make it 7-1. Spencer Brickhouse was thrown out trying to score from second base. Burleson hit a sacrifice fly the next inning with the bases loaded again to make it 8-1 ECU.
Things got dicey when Cam Colmore came in to pitch after Burleson. Colmore only got one batter out and gave up two runs on three hits and a walk. Gavin Williams comes in with an 8-3 lead. Williams got out of it without any damage.
The next inning began with left fielder Bryant Packard losing a fly ball in the lights that allowed UNC to threaten. Williams still never flinched and went 1.2 innings giving up just one hit.
Packard hit a 400-foot double off the top of the center field wall for a triple in the seventh inning but came up limp rounding second base heading for third. Packard jogged some to try and shake it off but Bryson Worrell pinch ran for him for precautionary reasons. He immediately scored on a Lane Hoover RBI single to make it 9-3. Packard finished 3-for-5.
Evan Voliva came in to pitch the ninth and gave up one run. Voliva walked the first two batters and later hit a batter to load the bases and bring the tying run to the plate. After making all the fans nervous, he struck out the batter to end it.
“Look, they’re good,” Godwin said. “They’re not ranked that high and considered one of the best teams in the country for nothing. They’re not going to come in here and not challenge us. They challenged us until the last out.”
It was Bark at the park night and, of course, a dog jumped the fence and ran onto the field, causing a delay in the top of the third inning.
UNC first baseman Michael Busch is a highly-regarded MLB draft prospect in ESPN’s Keith Law’s top-50. He was contained, for the most part, going 1-for-3 with a single and a walk.