The 2004 season will always be a special one for fans of East Carolina University athletics and the baseball program. Not only was that the final year of historic Harrington Field before Clark-LeClair Stadium took its place, but it was also a campaign in which the Pirates reeled off a feat not since accomplished by an ECU baseball team.
“A lot of former players played on that field and had a ton of memories on that field,” former ECU head baseball coach Randy Mazey said. “I think they were really rooting for that team to do something special that year.”
That something special was set a new program record for wins in a single season with 51 as the Pirates blew through the Kinston Regional, extending the program’s streak of consecutive appearances to six.
Eventually falling to the University of South Carolina in the Columba Super Regional, the 2004 version of the Pirates possessed a rare mix of hitting and pitching that allowed them to capture a Conference USA Championship with a 25-5 league record.
“We knew we had a good team that year,” Mazey said. “A lot of good players, we could do things well really on all sides of the ball. We could pitch, we could hit and we could play defense. When you do that, as long as you can keep a team motivated and make sure they play well, you’re going to have some success.”
Led by Ryan Jones, who slashed .400/.511/.823 with 19 home runs and 69 RBI, the Pirates crushed opposing pitching to the tune of a .318 team batting average. Jones, Greg Bunn, Trevor Lawhorn and Ryan Norwood all earned All-C-USA first team honors while Jamie Paige and Darryl Lawhorn made the second team roster.
ICYMI - moving on to the second round of the “Best Team Of All-Time Challenge” is the 2004 squad. Congratulations! pic.twitter.com/8M5LIm8lU6— ECU Baseball (@ECUBaseball) April 25, 2020
All told, six Pirates hit over .300 as the program mashed an even 100 home runs over 64 games while slugging better than .520 as a team.
On the mound, the Pirates were equally as unrelenting. Bunn, who was in the last of his three seasons in Greenville, North Carolina, amassed a staff-best 2.70 ERA across 106.2 innings. His 117 strikeouts in 2004 rank fourth all-time for a single season in program history while his career mark of 10.93 strikeouts per nine innings is tied for fourth-best.
Kevin Rhodes also posted a sub-3.00 ERA with all his work coming out of the bullpen, while Bunn and rotation-mate Brody Taylor combined to go 19-1 in 2004.
At the top of his game as a junior, Bunn remembers having the confidence to do whatever he wanted on the mound knowing his offense would back him up. Not in a jam much, Bunn and his fellow pitchers benefitted from an offense that pushed the opposing team’s ERA over seven.
“It’s very easy to throw the ball down the middle when you have to,” Bunn said. “The quality of hitters we had on that team, the ability to basically one through nine to hit the long ball at any time in a game and put your team back in the game. It makes you go out there with a lot of confidence that if I give up a run in the first inning or give up three runs in the first inning, we’re going to come back and win this game.”
With that potent offense, ECU rolled through the first two weeks of its schedule, racking up a 12-0 record. Back-to-back wins over nationally ranked Clemson University provided signature moments for a Pirate team that often found itself ranked in the top-ten in many national polls.
Putting a 12-0 record on the line in the face of strong opposition, ECU traveled to Arizona to face No. 6 Arizona State University. While the result was three consecutive losses for the Pirates all in close fashion, Bunn recounts that may have been the best thing for his team at the time.
“I always look back to those three losses as probably one of the things that defined our season and made it such a great season,” Bunn said. “We went out there 13-0 or whatever and competed in every single one of those games. Should have won two of them, ended up losing all of them, but we should have won two of those games. That basically showed everybody on that team that on a given day we could compete with anybody in the nation.”
Right back to their winning ways after three losses by a combined five runs, ECU reeled off seven victories in its next 10 games, picking up a key win over No. 14 ranked Tulane University in the process.
“That freshman year that was just a joy to be a part of that team,” former ECU pitcher Ricky Brooks said. “We went into every game, not assuming we were going to win, but we were so mentally prepared for success. As we just kept winning games, you just went into every series and every game like we’re just going to pound this game. That was one of the most fun years I’ve had in baseball in my life.”
Pound the Pirates did, ripping off a 19-game win streak from March 27 through May 4, a run that coincided perfectly with conference play. In the middle of that run, ECU accomplished a feat that will not be easily repeated.
Visiting Cincinnati for a three-game weekend series in the middle of April 2004, the Pirates swept the Bearcats while amassing 60 runs during that series alone. The cause for that offensive outburst aside from the already offensive minded Pirates having a good weekend?
“We ended up playing at this rundown rec field somewhere in Cincinnati,” Bunn said. “The mound was garbage and had holes dug in it. I kept falling all over myself trying to pitch, so it was not a fun day. Came off the mound and came into the dugout and watched our guys pound away. We were down pretty heavily. That was just a fun thing to watch those guys pound back into that game and win it.”
With Cincinnati’s home field needing work, the Pirates and Bearcats played at a glorified little league ballpark and posted gaudy offensive numbers throughout the weekend. The game Bunn is recalling, a 15-13 Pirate victory, saw the right-hander yield seven earned runs on 10 hits across 3.1 innings. A nine-run fourth inning by Cincinnati spelled the end of Bunn’s day, but nine runs by ECU over the game’s last three frames displayed the offensive might of the 2004 club.
Just a day later, however, that might was displayed on another level entirely. In response to a six-run first inning from Cincinnati, ECU blasted the Bearcats for 32 runs, including eight in the third inning and seven in the fifth frame in a 32-14 victory.
Still the most runs scored by an ECU baseball team in a single game, Paige went 7-for-8 with four doubles, five RBI and four runs scored. Jones also had a big day, mashing two home runs and logging six RBI in the runaway victory.
With high-scoring games part of the weekend routine for the 2004 Pirates, Mazey’s club rode into the Super Regional fresh off back-to-back wins over the University of North Carolina at Wilmington in as many days.
Bunn, who spun an eight inning two-hit shutout of UNCW on June 7 to secure the Regional crown, also got the nod to start game one of the Super Regional in Columbia just five days later.
“It was fast,” Bunn said. “That was one of the things I think that caused a problem was it was too fast. It was the shortest turnaround I had between outings at that point in my entire career for starts. I didn’t have a lot of time to prepare but also not a lot of time to think about it and worry too much about it. You went back to the matter at hand of just preparing physically and mentally just to go out and compete.”
Over five innings, Bunn made the most of the rain-shortened final outing of his collegiate career. Before the rain hit, the right-hander scattered five hits over five frames, allowing just two earned runs while striking out eight South Carolina batters and walking none.
“It was hot and it was a letdown, obviously,” Bunn said. “We ended up getting rained out after the fourth or fifth inning for about four or five hours. That was my last pitching outing at East Carolina was at that game and I had to cut it short because of the rain.”
After a 4-2 loss, Bunn was charged with his first loss of the season, dropping his record to 10-1 on the season. For the Pirates, it was just their 12th loss of the campaign, as the 13th would come a day later to bounce them from the Super Regional.
To this day, ECU baseball is still searching for its first College World Series appearance. Over the years, there have been many good teams grace the fields in Greenville but none that placed more wins in the win column in such a short amount of time as the 2004 squad.
In the ‘04 Major League Baseball Amateur Draft, seven Pirates were selected including Bunn in the fifth round by the Montreal Expos and Trevor Lawhorn in the ninth round by the Cincinnati Reds.
While the team ultimately came up short of the goal of winning a National Championship, seeing historic Harrington Field off with a program-best amount of wins was just one of many accolades associated with arguably the best ECU baseball team in history.
“Anytime you have a good season like that with a good team, it’s a culmination of a lot of hard work from a lot of different people,” Mazey said. “It’s always rewarding to show the people that had a hand in the success that they’re appreciated. To do it in the last year of that field made it that much more special.”