Centerfielder Drew Henrickson went 3-for-4 with a double, a triple and four runs batted in as No. 4-seeded ECU took an 8-4 win against No. 5-seeded UCF Tuesday morning in the opening game of the American Athletic Conference Baseball Championship presented by Visit St. Pete/Clearwater at Spectrum Field.
The Pirates (40-15) move to the winners’ bracket and will face either top-seeded Houston or No. 8-seeded Tulane Wednesday at 12:30 p.m. ET. The Knights (35-20) will play an elimination game against the Houston/Tulane loser Wednesday at 9 a.m. ET.
Henrickson’s RBI triple in the bottom of the third inning gave ECU its first lead of the game, while his bases-loaded double in the bottom of the seventh broke the game open for the Pirates.
UCF had scored three runs in the top of the first inning off of ECU starter Chris Holba, the unanimous first-team all-conference selection. But the Knights managed only one run the rest of the way as three ECU relief pitchers combined to work 5.2 scoreless innings while allowing only four hits.
Henrickson’s triple came in the third after Connor Litton had led off the inning with a grounder to short that drew an errant throw to put Litton at second. Henrickson took a 1-2 pitch to right, easily scoring Litton to give ECU a 4-3 lead, before Henrickson scored on Brady Lloyd’s sacrifice fly to give the Pirates a two-run cushion.
UCF got one back in the top of the fourth on Ray Alejo’s base hit to center, which brought Brandon Hernandez home from second, making it 5-4. But the Pirates loaded the bases in the bottom of the seventh on a single, double and a hit batsman, setting the table for Henrickson, who laced a 1-1 pitch to the right-center power alley to clear the bases and put ECU ahead 8-4.
Spencer Brickhouse, Jake Washer and Alec Burleson all had two hits for ECU, which had a 12-6 advantage in hits. Ryan Ross picked up the win in relief, improving to 2-4 after he worked two scoreless innings with three strikeouts. Thad Ward took the loss for UCF, falling to 5-4.
The 40 wins for ECU match the most for the Pirates under fourth-year head coach Cliff Godwin, whose team finished 40-22 in the 2015 season. ECU improved to 9-3 all-time in the American Athletic Conference Championship. ECU leftfielder Bryant Packard, the American Athletic Conference Player of the Year, went 0-for-5, putting an end to a 32-game hitting streak and a 37-game on-base streak.
Tickets for the championship will be available at Spectrum Field each day of the tournament or may be purchased in advance by calling the box office at 727-467-4457. The latest information on the American Athletic Conference Baseball Championship is available on the conference’s Championship Central page at www.TheAmerican.org/Baseball.