Alex Cunningham figured he’d be pitching at the Class A level of professional baseball right about now.
The Detroit Tigers selected Cunningham in the 28th round (835th overall) of the Major League Baseball draft last June, and Cunningham was comfortable enough with the progress of negotiations last summer to announce he would be turning pro and forgoing his final season of eligibility at Coastal Carolina.
He expected to join the Tigers’ rookie ball team in Florida following the Chanticleers’ College World Series title. But he never signed and returned to Coastal.
“I thought I was going to Detroit for sure,” Cunningham said. “Contract negotiations just didn’t work out. Not to say I’m money hungry or all about the money, but at the end of the day we couldn’t get a feel of what we were both trying to achieve and I think we went about it the wrong way.”
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Cunningham’s return was certainly a gift to the Chants, who retained an experienced college ace.
As it turns out, the return appears to be to Cunningham’s gain as well.
Coming off a season in which he went 10-4 with a 3.62 earned-run average, Cunningham has established himself as the clear No. 1 starter on a talented pitching staff this season, going 5-1 with a 2.12 ERA. He has twice been named the Sun Belt Conference Player of the Week and is one of 40 players named to the Watch List for the Golden Spikes Award, given annually to the top player in the nation.
“I look at it as a second chance,” Cunningham said. “Last year wasn’t my greatest year by any means. I had a decent year by all measures, but I think this year I had a second chance to come back, get better and improve my draft stock.
“It has always been the main goal to achieve the highest level I can, and I think coming back this year has really kind of guided me to that. I’ve developed a lot of things and I’ve learned more in this past year than I have in my previous three.”
Cunningham’s numbers have improved this year across the board. He has allowed just 50 hits and 13 walks in 72 1/3 innings while striking out 83 and holding opponents to about a .190 batting average.
Cunningham, who is 6 feet and 210 pounds, leads the conference in strikeouts, tied a CCU single-game record with 14 strikeouts, and reached two-balls counts against just eight hitters in a complete-game shutout against Georgia State. His lone loss was a 1-0 duel against Sun Belt power Louisiana.
He threw seven innings Friday against Georgia Southern, allowing two runs on six hits with no walks and nine strikeouts to earn the win and help the Chants (24-13-1) retain first place in the Sun Belt Conference’s East Division at 11-4-1.
The Chants returned nearly all of the key cogs on the mound from last year with the exception of closer Mike Morrison.
“I’ve kind of always considered myself the ace of any staff I’ve ever been on. I’m sure everyone does,” Cunningham said. “I don’t feel I’ve taken any more responsibility than I already had. Maybe as far as being a vocal leader, we are missing that part from Morrison, so I maybe have stepped up in that regard. But I haven’t changed anything I’ve done in the past couple years.”
Cunningham came to the Chants as a highly regarded in-state product from Byrnes High in Duncan and went 2-1 in nine appearances with a 3.30 ERA as a freshman in 2013.
Cunningham developed a fracture on the tip of his elbow late in his freshman year that forced him to redshirt his entire sophomore season.
A screw was inserted but it became infected and had to be removed. The infection began to eat away at the bone, so Cunningham had to take a full year off to allow the elbow to heal.
“There was nothing we could do to speed up the recovery process. It’s an injury that set me back a whole year,” Cunningham said. “I had to kind of relearn everything after I got hurt.”
He went 6-0 with a stellar 2.56 ERA in 2015 after his redshirt sophomore season, though he still wasn’t 100 percent and developed tendinitis late in the season.
Cunningham began last season as the No. 1 starter – or Friday starter – but struggled early and was moved to the bullpen for a few games. “My confidence was already shook when I had a 16 ERA after three weekends,” Cunningham said. “I got moved to the bullpen and figured some things out and was eventually moved back to starting when we started conference play. I was sticking with the process, trying to focus on how I could get better every day.”
He worked through his issues with the help of pitching coach Drew Thomas.
“In this game it’s all about repetition, getting out there and going after it every day and truly competing,” Cunningham said. “It’s all muscle memory. Once you revert back to something in your delivery you pick it up [quickly]. Confidence comes with being successful multiple times so you just have to fight through it for a little while.”
Cunningham eventually became a key contributor to CCU’s run to the national title as a starter, and threw the final pitch of the College World Series.
He pitched the final three innings of the championship series finale against Arizona, and with the Chants clinging to a 4-3 lead in the bottom of the ninth with two outs, two runners in scoring position and a 3-2 count on Ryan Haug, Cunningham recorded his only strikeout of the game on a swinging strike to clinch the title and set off a pig-pile celebration near the mound.
“I’m always going to remember that. That will be one of the greatest moments of my entire life,” Cunningham said. “But I try not to live so much in the past and try to worry about the present. We say here all the time, ‘Stay in the process. Stay in the present.’ So I’m just trying to do that as best I can.”
It’s difficult for Cunningham not to relive the title-clinching pitch on a daily basis, considering there is an Omaha room in the Chants’ now spacious and comfortable Springs Brooks Stadium with baseballs for all 73 games played (55 wins) and an ode to each College World Series game with a photo and game stats.
“We are reminded of it every day we come to this complex,” he said. “You see all the glamour of the Omaha room as we call it. So it’s hard to avoid, but at the same time you try not to get buried in all that. I have another focus, which is this season.”
Cunningham worked to add a slider this year to the fastball, changeup and curveball he has featured. His fastball is generally from 91-95 mph while his curve is in the low 70s and his change and slider are closer to 80 mph.
Omaha is always the goal in mind, but it’s all about the process. You want to think about Omaha but we’ve got four or five weeks left in the regular season, then we’ve got to worry about conference, then regionals, then super regionals, then comes Omaha. So it’s kind of a process, and we try to stick to that.
Cunningham is a graduate student at CCU. He earned a degree in Management last spring and will have two classes and an internship remaining to earn his Masters in Business Administration at season’s end. He was named to the Big South Conference Presidential Honor Roll three times for posting at least a 3.0 grade-point average and has earned Dean’s List recognition.
“I have attributes other than baseball,” Cunningham said. “Getting an MBA was always a goal of mine, too. It’s always nice to have something to fall back on, especially a degree like that. Coming back here was just a second chance all the way around. I got to further my education and had a whole year to improve my draft stock and pick out everything that was wrong and correct it.”
Cunningham will have another chance to go through the draft and the negotiations that follow this June, likely with another team.
“Going through the draft process it kind of makes you question some things, but sitting here today I truly believe everything happens for a reason,” Cunningham said. “I’m in a better position now than I was a year ago tenfold. I got to continue my education and I put myself in a better position to be drafted so far – lets hope that continues. I feel I’m on pace to doing what I want to do and accomplishing what I want to accomplish.”