Coastal Carolina

Defensive wizard Cooke providing second helping of offense for CCU

CCU's Cooke talks about his contribution (Video)

Coastal Carolina junior Billy Cooke discusses his season and career at CCU. He has established himself as one of the best centerfielders and leadoff hitters in college baseball.
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Coastal Carolina junior Billy Cooke discusses his season and career at CCU. He has established himself as one of the best centerfielders and leadoff hitters in college baseball.

Billy Cooke can recite on request all of the errors he has committed in his three seasons at Coastal Carolina.

It helps that there are only two of them, and the junior can tell you the opponent, the inning, the situation and the end result of the game for each.

That’s how seriously the player who Coastal Carolina head coach Gary Gilmore refers to as the best center fielder in college baseball takes his defensive responsibilities.

This year’s error? “It was the bottom of the 12th, one out and Jonathan Ortega was up for Texas State,” Cooke said. “It was a soft line drive to right-center field, it took a funny bounce and I overran the ball and it touched my glove and I ended up slipping and falling and throwing into second and he got into second safely. They won in the bottom of the 14th so we got out of that inning.”

Last year’s error? “I dropped a ball at Longwood on a Saturday. I remember that game. I remember all of the specifics to it,” Cooke said.

His defense has always been unquestioned.

What is making the 2016-17 season special for Cooke is the offense he is providing that has made him one of the best leadoff hitters in the country.

“He’s been incredible,” Gilmore said. “He’s probably won this year alone three or four games just with the catches he’s made, just incredible plays in the outfield, as good as any that have ever been made here. Defensively he’s off the charts and he’s evolved into an upper-echelon All-America type offensive player as well.”

Cooke’s two errors compare to 311 putouts and nine assists in his career, not including the multitude of hits that he’s handled in center or the gaps.

In addition to his sure-handedness, Cooke has produced a plethora of highlight-reel catches, some that have been recognized on ESPN. Cooke recorded the final out of the Chants’ 7-5 win over N.C. State that clinched their super-regional berth last year, as he chased down a line drive to the wall in center field, causing him to be the last player on the dogpile celebration in the infield.

“I take great pride in my defense,” Cooke said. “I believe defense wins games. I think with all the time and effort I’ve put into it I’m really comfortable out there and don’t feel I’m ever going to make a mistake. I hold myself accountable for everything that gets hit out there.”

Entering Friday night’s game against Appalachian State at Springs Brooks Stadium – the Chants’ 55th of the season – Cooke led or was tied for the team lead with a .346 batting average, 66 hits, 15 doubles, a .472 on-base percentage, a .592 slugging percentage, 36 walks, 21 stolen bases in 26 attempts, six sacrifice flies and 15 times hit by a pitch, which leads the team by 10.

Cooke, of Maitland, Fla., ranks in the top 50 nationally in Division I in on-base percentage, runs, stolen bases, sacrifice flies, sacrifice bunts and times hit by a pitch, and he ranks in the top 150 in three other categories.

“You never know as a coach the evolution process and how long it’s going to take,” Gilmore said. “Billy has begun to really figure some things out. It’s as much figuring themselves out and what makes them tick and what type of hitters they are, what pitches they’re able to handle. He’s come a million miles in that area.”

Cooke’s 10 home runs entering Friday were second to Kevin Woodall Jr. on the team and his 37 RBIs were third. He had three home runs and 36 RBIs all of last season.

“I’m getting my pitch to hit,” said Cooke, who is listed on CCU’s roster as 5-foot-10 and 175 pounds, which is 8 inches and 65 pounds less than Woodall. “Most of my home runs have been 3-1, 3-2 counts so the majority of them have been fastballs. I’ve been putting good swings on balls recently and they’re just going out. I can’t tell you the reasons why. I don’t really feel more powerful. I feel my swing has improved significantly from the time I’ve spent in the cage with my mechanics and to recognize the pitches, what pitches are going to come in what counts.”

Cooke essentially lost his freshman year when he broke the hamate bone in his left hand in the season opener and would hit just .148 in 27 at-bats. He played in the summer wooden-bat Valley League for collegiate players on a team in Charlottesville, Va., after his freshman year to recoup the lost at-bats and continued to work on his hitting that fall.

He was productive at the bottom of the lineup last year while helping the Chants capture the national championship, batting .324 in 72 games with 77 hits, 47 runs, 16 doubles, 31 walks, a .415 on-base percentage, and team-leading totals of 14 sacrifice bunts and 27 stolen bases.

He was moved to the leadoff spot this season because of CCU’s loss of numerous offensive weapons.

“A lot of teams watched us last year throughout our playoff run so coming into this year they know who most of us are and how we play,” Cooke said. “You get pitched a lot differently moving to the top of the lineup and teams knowing who you are. It’s a process, a grind every day. I see something different every day in my at-bats. I’m never pitched the same.”

Some guys lead with more of an outward expression. Billy leads just by playing hard. Anyone that comes to watch us play sees the kid puts his heart on the line every single day. He plays so hard. He doesn’t need to say anything.

CCU head coach Gary Gilmore on Billy Cooke

As impactful as his play has been, Cooke has gone about it with little noise. He’s among the least talkative players on the team.

“I think if you know me I’ll probably open up some more, but I don’t really like to be the vocal guy out there,” Cooke said. “I like to play really hard and everybody else can watch me off that. I think I lead by example and I think my teammates realize that.”

Gilmore said Cooke has become slightly more vocal this year with the loss of so many leaders off last year’s team including Connor Owings, Zach Remillard, G.K. Young, Anthony Marks, Michael Paez, Tyler Chadwick and Mike Morrison.

“He talks a little more. He just talks to the ladies, he doesn’t talk to the rest of us,” Gilmore joked. “Anybody in our dugout that doesn’t realize they’re watching one of the best players in college baseball play and see how he goes about it … he just doesn’t let it ooze all out for the whole world to see and bring attention to himself. He just quietly goes about his business. He’s got a maturity and selflessness about him. He wants this team to win.”

Alan Blondin: 843-626-0284, @alanblondin