Crucial Stretch Lies Ahead for East Carolina
by Dan Eberhard

East Carolina is smack in the middle of the toughest part of the schedule and the team's postseason hopes may hinge on how they perform over the next four weeks.  The problem is ECU will have to do it without its leading hitter.

Starting shortstop Billy Richardson injured his left hand swinging at a pitch in last Saturday's win over Charlotte.  Richardson had surgery yesterday and will most likely be out for several weeks.  Billy's return to the field depends on how fast he can recover, but the Pirate coaches are optimistic he will be back this season.

The latest setback follows a rash of injuries to the ECU pitching staff and comes with a crucial stretch of games lying ahead.  The Pirates are sporting just a 1-5 league record and hit the road for two of their next three Conference USA series.

Up this weekend is a trip to TCU where the Pirates were swept back in 2003.  Perennial C-USA contender Southern Miss visits Greenville in two weeks and ECU follows up that series with a trip to Louisville.  Last weekend the Cardinals took two out of three from then No. 1 Tulane.

"You never know with Conference USA," said ECU third baseman Mark Minicozzi.  "It's still early, we just want to take it one game at a time and at the end of the season start worrying about positioning."

The good news is ECU will have most of its games against C-USA's elite teams out of the way by the end of April.  The Pirates close out the season with series against Memphis, Cincinnati, South Florida, UAB and St. Louis.  All are teams East Carolina has traditionally fared well against and 9 of those 15 games will be at home.

The remaining non-conference schedule has three games against NC State, two against North Carolina and a possible make-up trip to UNCW.

Richardson's presence will certainly be missed regardless of whom the Pirates are playing.  The senior had started every game before the injury and was batting a league best .423 (minimum 17 games, ECU's Brian Cavanaugh batting .473 in 15 games started).

Freshman Dale Mollenhauer will likely replace Richardson in the lineup. "Dale's a young guy, he's got a great glove and he can hit too," said Minicozzi.

As of Wednesday the freshman had played in 18 games and started 11, mostly at second base.  He was sporting a .250 batting average with 7 RBI.

"It's an unfortunate situation for Billy", said Mollenhauer.  "As a team we're going to have to pull forward.  We need wins."

Richardson will be missed not only because of his skills but his leadership as well.  Now a young Pirate lineup will try and get the defending Conference USA champs back at the top of the league standings where they belong.

Dan Eberhard