For a dozen years Winthrop baseball stood tall in a Big South Conference field sparse with good teams. From 1995 to 2006, a stretch when the team tilled up its first Top 25 ranking and harvested the program's last 40-plus win season, the Eagles were the cream of the crop.
How can anyone say that now?
Winthrop's heyday included 453 victories, a .623 winning percentage and five NCAA Regional appearances in 12 years. That success helped build The Winthrop Ballpark, an 1,800-seat facility that received its finishing touches prior to the 2008 season.
That heyday seems a distant memory now. Winthrop is 13-10 heading into today's 6 p.m. game at North Carolina. Over the last two-and-a-half seasons the Eagles are just a few games better than .500.
"Our expectations are always the same," Winthrop coach Joe Hudak said Monday afternoon at practice. "We want to get to the Regionals. I think the expectations are higher this year than they were last season and in 2008. We have experience on the mound now. Pitching and defense wins championships."
Experienced or not, the pitching has not been good lately. In losing four of its past six games, the Eagles' staff has given up 70 runs.
Hudak can't quite explain the pitching woes. In the first 14 games he saw two bad starts. In the past nine games, there have been just two good starting performances.
One of the good ones came in the second game of Saturday's doubleheader, an 8-4 win against High Point. Robert Lake went 62/3 innings. It was the longest outing for an Eagles' starter since March 18.
The five previous starting assignments were finished before the end of the fifth inning.
Lake went 32/3 against Kent State in a 16-10 loss. Wade Newman lasted two innings in a 15-4 loss to High Point on Friday and Matteo D'Angelo worked four frames in the Eagles' 15-9 loss in Game 1 of Saturday's twin bill.
"The schedule said we were playing Kent State, Penn State and High Point but it felt like the '27 Yankees," Hudak said, trying to smile.
Dom Patterozzi is coming back from season-ending arm surgery. He has started four games including two of Winthrop's last five outings. He only retired one Penn State batter on March 20 and threw 21/3 innings at The Citadel on March 24.
Patterozzi hasn't regained his velocity, according to Hudak, and will begin working out of the bullpen. In 11 innings, Patterozzi has allowed 20 hits and 11 walks. He has a 13.09 ERA. Hudak will give freshmen Matt Pierpont and Tommy Lawrence a chance to earn the No.4 starter's job in the coming weeks.
"We've gone through a difficult stretch and we may have to make some changes," Hudak said. "Patterozzi's off-speed pitches aren't over the plate now but by the end of the season he will be pitching effectively."
Neither Pierpont nor Lawrence have started a game at the college level. Pierpont has pitched in four games and has struck out 10 in 91/3 innings. Lawrence has appeared in nine games and has fanned 16 in 162/3. He is 2-1 with a 7.02 ERA.
Hudak claims the team is still recovering and rebuilding from the loss of pitchers Alex Wilson and Jason Franzblau. They were No.1 and No.2 at the top of Winthrop's rotation in 2007 as sophomores. They combined for 14 wins and were among the Big South Conference leaders in ERA and strikeouts.
Wilson played in the Cape Cod summer league after throwing 111 innings for the Eagles. He injured his elbow, had Tommy John surgery and transferred out of Winthrop. He finished his college career at Texas A&M and was a second-round pick of the Boston Red Sox in 2009.
Soon after learning Wilson would have surgery, Hudak dismissed Franzblau. The coach told The Herald in August of 2007 that he dismissed the pitcher because "(his) actions were not what I want in a Winthrop baseball player. (His) actions and attitude, I guess, were not what I want in my players."
Franzblau, who led the team with eight wins and 112 innings pitched, transferred to Arizona State to finish his college eligibility. Undrafted, he signed last summer with the Seattle Mariners.
Without Wilson and Franzblau, Winthrop fell to 26-34 in 2008. It was the first losing season since 2002.
"People didn't understand it was impossible to recover in 2008. It really set us back," Hudak said. "We had three brand new starters and then last year we had to go with three new starters again."
There is more to it than that, though.
The program also lost Hamilton Bennett, a pitcher from Tega Cay, who was a starter for the Eagles in 2008. He failed to accumulate enough hours to keep his eligibility. Bennett now pitches for Tennessee Wesleyan College where he is 3-1.
Another pitcher, Cory McGinnis, and infielder Garrett Koster were dismissed from the team following their arrest on March 31, 2009, for possession of marijuana.
McGinnis appeared in seven games as a freshman reliever and is now at Shelton State Community College in Tuscaloosa, Ala.
Koster played 19 games as a freshman. He is playing for Walters State Community College in Morristown, Tenn. and has committed to Elon for the 2011 season.
Another kick in the pants came when Hudak offered pitcher Mikey O'Brien a scholarship. O'Brien would have been a weekend starter last season. Instead, he signed with the New York Yankees on June 7, 2008, as a ninth-round draft choice.
"You take all of that and it was a significant blow," Hudak said.
Factor in that the Big South Conference is improving and you have the 2010 Eagles sitting in a three-way tie for seventh in the league.
"We should win with what we have. Ultimately I am responsible for us," Hudak said.
"Last year was a positive step in the right direction. I like the state of the program. We're on our way back."
The Eagles get back into conference play on Friday with a three-game series at Gardner-Webb.
Winthrop (13-10) at North Carolina (16-9), 6 p.m.
North Carolina was tripped up, 11-8, in 10 innings at home by No. 3 Georgia Tech on Sunday. The loss dropped UNC's ACC record to 2-7 and the team fell from No. 19 out of the Top 25. North Carolina has lost four of its last five outings.
The Tar Heels' bullpen was rocked Saturday and Sunday. The relievers combined to go 0-1 with an 11.45 ERA. They allowed 19 runs off 21 hits and nine walks in 11 innings.