What have Andrew Beckwith and Alex Cunningham meant to the Coastal Carolina University baseball program?
You don’t need to look much past the school’s 2016 NCAA College World Series championship to understand.
“What did it take, 66 years for a mid-major to do what we did?” Chanticleers 22-year head coach Gary Gilmore said. “So that should say it all, right, if it takes another 66 for another school our size in the conference like we were in to be able to be a national champion. Especially Cunningham and Beckwith, we don’t do that without those two guys.”
The Chanticleers lose just three players to eligibility off the team that recorded the best regular season record in the Sun Belt Conference in 2017, but their contributions sure make it seem like a lot more.
Beckwith, Cunningham and relief pitcher Cole Schaefer are the players whose eligibility expired once the Chants weren’t selected to participate in the NCAA Tournament following their upset loss to Texas State in their opening game of the conference tournament.
Beckwith earned the John D. Diesing Award as the College World Series Most Outstanding Player after recording a 3-0 record with two complete games and a 0.76 ERA in 23 2/3 innings in the CWS, and went 5-0 with a 1.96 ERA in the 2016 postseason.
Cunningham earned the win against Texas Christian that sent CCU to the CWS championship series against Arizona, and earned his first career save in the series finale with three innings of work, recording a strikeout for the final out on a 3-2 count with runners on second and third and the Chants leading by one.
“We’ll be hard pressed to ever replace those two guys for what they did on the field,” Gilmore said. “They’re two of the best arguably of all time that have ever put this uniform on, and they did it on an incredible stage. It’s one thing to say you were one of the guys, one of the best at Coastal all-time, and it’s a little bit different when you’ve got that big ring on your hand and you did it on the biggest stage of all, and that’s what those guys did.”
Beckwith was a Collegiate Baseball 2017 Preseason First Team All-America selection and Cunningham was a Third Team selection.
“[Beckwith] is an incredible pitcher, he and Cunningham both,” Texas State coach Ty Harrington said. “If you were to put a college pitching staff together you’d go and grab both those guys every year.”
Beckwith, of Blythewood, went 32-9 in his career with a 2.74 earned-run average and .263 opponent batting average in 102 appearances.
As a junior, Beckwith, who is 6 feet and 180 pounds, recorded the most wins in a season in six years in NCAA Division I with a 15-1 record and sterling 1.85 ERA.
“That guy, just put a big W on his chest. He’s just a winner. He’s just a flat winner, that’s who he is,” Gilmore said. “That kid’s heart is so into it.”
Beckwith went 8-2 this season with a 4.34 ERA, and he was stellar for most of the season. Combining two February outings against James Madison and West Virginia with his conference tournament start on Friday, Beckwith was 0-2 and allowed 20 runs and 28 hits in nine innings. In between, he went 8-0 with a 2.73 ERA in Sun Belt games.
“This year has been hard on him from everything that went on last year,” CCU pitching coach Drew Thomas said. “There was a lot of parades and loving and kissing babies for a long time last year and it never stopped until after the first series of this year, so he never really had a chance to move on and regroup, and he had to figure that out on the fly, and he did.”
Beckwith thought his mechanics were off a bit early in the season. “I think it was a game at Georgia State I just became unconscious again,” Beckwith said. “I didn’t worry about anything. I kind of was just a position player throwing to my catcher. I wasn’t thinking too much and I think that’s really the turning point of the year.”
Cunningham (6-0, 210), of Duncan and Byrnes High, established himself as the No. 1 starter early this season and went 7-2 with a 2.63 ERA, striking out 117 in 106 innings, twice striking out 14 in a game to match a school record and holding opponents to a .195 batting average. For his career, Cunningham went 25-7 with a 3.06 ERA in 57 games.
“It’s going to be tough next year knowing [Cunningham] isn’t going out there either every Friday or Saturday for you and is going to give you six, seven or eight innings,” Gilmore said.
Cunningham admitted to crying in the dugout after he walked off the mound with one out in the ninth inning in his final home appearance and received a standing ovation. “I love this place. It’s been the best four years of my life,” Cunningham said.
Schaefer (6-2, 205), of Portage, Mich., pitched five innings against N.C. State in CCU’s 2016 regional and allowed one hit and one run in 2 2/3 innings against Arizona in the championship series. He went 1-1 with a 5.16 ERA in 16 games this season, and was 5-7 in 49 career appearances with a 5.21 ERA.
“Schaefer has been a great jack of all trades guy for us,” Gilmore said. “He’s been a fantastic teammate and locker room guy. He buys in to everything and has been a great example for the young guys to follow.”
Junior starting pitcher Zack Hopeck said the three pitchers have treated him like a brother. “It’s a great camaraderie they bring to the team,” Hopeck said.
I’ve had so much fun catching those three guys over the years. Each of them really commit to their craft and throw each pitch with intent and they really get after it. So it’s a joy to catch them.
CCU junior catcher Matt Beaird
Cunningham said the three pitchers just tried to carry on the legacy left to them by past CCU standouts, including former teammate Mike Morrison. “Just carrying the torch,” Cunningham said. “We’ve always had a saying here since my freshman year, [pitching] coach Drew Thomas said, ‘Land the plane.’ Give it to the next guy. Do you job, give it to the next guy. He does his job and gives it to the next guy. As long as you keep doing your job and passing the torch along everything will be okay.”
All three pitchers were named to the Big South Conference Honor Roll in multiple seasons for posting at least a 3.0 GPA, both Beckwith and Cunningham earned CCU Dean’s List recognition, and both Cunningham and Schaefer graduated with Management degrees before the season began.
“I love those kids. All three of those kids are just the salt of the earth,” Gilmore said.
Both Cunningham and Beckwith aspire to pitch at the Major League Baseball level and hope to be drafted during the 2017 MLB draft from June 12-14.
Cunningham was selected by the Detroit Tigers in the 28th round of last year’s Major League Baseball draft with the 835th overall pick but did not agree to a contract. He stands to be drafted a lot sooner following his impressive senior season.
Beckwith went undrafted last year, but the draft was prior to his MOP performance in the College World Series.
“Maybe if the draft was after the College World Series, maybe,” Beckwith said. “The coaches told me there was talk about me and I definitely opened some eyes, but that’s out of my control. I just kept telling myself you really can’t control that. Maybe it happens this year.”
Beckwith, who changes arm angles from throwing over the top to sidearm and throws to contact more than relying on power and strikeouts, said he used going undrafted as motivation this season. “Halfway through this season I was like, ‘Man, what am I playing for?’ That’s one of the big things was not getting drafted,” Beckwith said. “Obviously I play for myself and I play for others, but I’m also playing for all those doubters, those guys who didn’t believe in me after my junior year.”
He made 79 appearances out of the bullpen at CCU and believes his future in professional baseball is as a middle reliever. “I have a closer’s mentality but I don’t have closer stuff,” Beckwith said. “Middle relief, I think that’s where I’m going to make my bread.”
Beckwith said if he doesn’t receive an opportunity in pro baseball he’ll complete the four credits he has remaining for a degree and enter the military, likely the Air Force or Army.