College Baseball: Record-setting day for Tyler
Published 12:00 am Monday, March 28, 2016
LANDIS — Eric Tyler has been playing baseball almost since he could walk, but he’d never hit two home runs in a game.
Not ever. Not in Pee Wees. Not in middle school. Not in travel ball.
In high school at South Rowan, where there’s a short porch in left field, he was recognized as a strong defensive catcher and a special leader, but power was never his thing. He accounted for a modest four homers in his four-year varsity career from 2010-13.
But the junior belted two homers in the same game on Saturday for East Carolina, and there were a lot of guys on base when he hit them.
There was a three-run homer in the first inning and a grand slam in the eighth. There also was a fifth-inning sacrifice fly between the longballs. He amassed a school-record eight RBIs as the Pirates beat Jacksonville, 13-0, to take a weekend series.
“I’m heading to the postgame interview room, and that’s when our media relations guy told me I’d broken the school record for RBIs,” Tyler said. “That was the first time I’d heard it was a record. It was a cool deal because it helped us win a series.”
The three-run homer in the first came on a changeup.
“He hung it, and I was able to sit back and drive it to left-center,” Tyler said. “I didn’t know if I’d gotten enough of it, but, fortunately, the wind was blowing out.”
The grand slam came on an inside fastball that was meant to be on his hands, but he turned on it.
“I hit it hard, but I knew I’d hooked it some, and I was just hoping it would somehow stay fair,” Tyler said. “I got lucky. It nicked the foul pole.”
Only Tyler would credit the wind and a foul pole for an eight-RBI day, but that’s how he is. As standout players go, he’s unassuming.
It was a hectic weekend for Tyler, who headed home not long after his career game to spend Easter with his family. By Sunday evening, he was driving back to Greenville. There’s not much downtime in college baseball. The Pirates host UNC Wilmington on Tuesday.
Tyler batted .345 in his four years of high school ball for coach Thad Chrismon, but 75 of his 98 hits were singles. He played well for the elite South Charlotte Panthers program and competed in major showcase events, but when he signed with a major program many wondered if he’d ever get serious playing time. After all, he was a 5-foot-8 guy who wasn’t blessed with speed or power.
His freshman year was a struggle offensively (.183 batting average), but injuries gave Tyler an opportunity to get on the field right away and he started 26 games at catcher. He frequently caught Jeff Hoffman, a hard-throwing right-hander who was Toronto’s first-round draft pick.
A new head coach (Cliff Godwin) and the return to health of ECU catcher Travis Watkins, who had starred at Cox Mill High, changed the direction of Tyler’s career.
Godwin is a swing guru. He provided a consistent hitting base for Tyler, who had been constantly tweaking his mechanics and trying a lot of different things.
Godwin liked Tyler’s offensive potential enough that he started playing him all over the diamond to get his bat in the lineup — catcher, first base, third base, right field and left field. As a sophomore, Tyler batted a respectable .268. He added 38 walks and hit by pitches for a strong .378 on-base percentage. He also hit his first three college homers and drove in 25 runs.
“Travis Watkins is one of the best catchers I’ve ever seen, so I was just happy to be getting in the lineup somewhere,” Tyler said. “All I wanted was to be in there.”
It was a breakout sophomore season for Tyler, but his coaches believed he could get to do more.
“So I spent last summer in Greenville, going to class, working out every day and taking a lot of groundballs from (assistant coach) Jeff Palumbo,” Tyler said. “The plan was to make me a full-time third baseman.”
That’s exactly what has happened. Tyler has played a few innings at catcher and in the outfield, but his home now is third base. He’s started every game this season at the hot corner.
“I’d been a catcher all my life, so there were some rough times making the switch, but the coaches stuck with me,” Tyler said. “I’m getting closer to being in a comfort zone at third base. I’m not playing as many balls off my chest now. I’m fielding more balls clean.”
He’s also become one of the most important players in the lineup. He usually bats fifth, and he’s hitting .293. He’s the team leader with four homers and 23 RBIs.
“I’ve been put in a great situation in the middle of the lineup behind really good hitters,” Tyler said. “It’s given me a lot of chances to drive in runs.”
East Carolina hadn’t hit two homers in a game all season until Tyler produced two of the three they blasted on Saturday.
“It couldn’t happen to a better person,” Godwin told InsideECUSports.com. “I’m proud that his name is going to be in the record book because he does things the right way on and off the field. Works hard every day, so I’m really happy for him.”
Tyler likes this year’s team, which has a good mix of veterans and freshmen. The Pirates (16-8) are ranked 19th nationally.
“We’ve got a talented freshman at shortstop (Whiteville’s Turner Brown) and we’ve got a freshman outfielder who was drafted in high school by the Cincinnati Reds (Wilson’s Dwanya Williams-Sutton),” Tyler said. “We’ve also got veteran guys who can guide them along and show them the ropes.”
Tyler talks weekly to his friend Brian Bauk, a former Salisbury High star who is emerging as a standout for Appalachian State as a junior. Tyler believes Bauk has a big future as a pitcher.
And what about Tyler’s future?
“I’m not sure how many major league teams are looking for a 5-8, 205-pound third baseman,” Tyler said with a laugh. “But I love baseball, and I’ll see how far it can take me.”