With a lack of proven starting pitchers entering this season, Coastal Carolina baseball coach Gary Gilmore made it very clear from the start that the Chanticleers needed third-year sophomore Alex Cunningham to settle in as the ace of the staff this spring despite his own limited experience.
And while the results to this point have been somewhat mixed, Cunningham sure looked the part Friday.
The hard-throwing right-hander threw a career-high 106 pitches while racking up a career-best nine strikeouts in leading the Chants to a 7-2 win over Bryant in the opener of a three-game series between the teams at Springs Brooks Stadium.
“Like I said, for us to function with what we have, he has to be a solid seven-inning guy virtually every time out and give us a chance to win,” Gilmore said. “That’s what he did today.”
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Cunningham (3-0) had been knocked around for nine hits, three walks and eight runs (only three earned) in five innings last week in a no-decision against Akron, but he was plenty effective Friday while yielding three hits and three walks over seven innings as the Chants (12-6) picked up their third-straight win.
Bryant (2-10) did benefit from three walks in the top of the fourth, including one with the bases loaded to plate its first run, but the Bulldogs really didn’t find much rhythm offensively against Cunningham.
He had only given up one hit before yielding a solo home run to Robby Rinn to start the seventh. That cut Coastal Carolina’s lead to 4-2 at the time and Cunningham then yielded a single and stolen base to Cole Fabio, but he shut the Bulldogs down from there with three straight strikeouts to end his day.
“Obviously last outing was a rough start, but like I said from the beginning, the main thing is always keeping that confidence and having trust in your defense and knowing you can go out there and get the job done,” Cunningham said. “[Pitching coach Drew] Thomas was good with the pitch calling, [catcher Casey Schroeder] was good setting up behind the plate. Everything just fell into place.”
Cunningham, who missed all of last season while recovering from a fractured pitching elbow and post-surgery complications, has made five starts this season while allowing two runs or fewer in three of them. He lowered his earned-run average to 3.23 after his strong performance Friday, and perhaps most importantly, the Chants are 5-0 in his five starts.
Gilmore sees room for improvement still, but he’s also encouraged by the righty’s development.
“He’s doing a real good job. The one thing he needs to get better at is when we give him two or three runs in an inning, going back out there [and getting outs],” Gilmore said. “That to me is the most important inning. When we have offense, get out there with high energy and get us off the field. We gave him two runs there in that one inning and got up 3-0 and he walked three guys and [we were] one swing of the bat from really having to scramble around. Outside of that, I thought he did a great job.”
Speaking of those three walks in the fourth, which followed a leadoff double by Jordan Mountford and were sandwiched around a couple of outs, Cunningham said Schroeder helped him refocus and get back on track.
“Honestly, Casey got in my butt a little bit, which is good for any catcher to see that in a pitcher and recognize it and know how to handle it,” Cunningham said. “So he really just kind of settled me down, like I said got in my butt a little bit and just fired me up.”
Offensively, the Chants just continued to put pressure on the opposition while scoring at least seven runs for the third straight game.
Sophomore shortstop Michael Paez was 2-for-2 with three RBIs and a run, junior centerfielder Anthony Marks was 2-for-4 with four runs and sophomore designated hitter G.K. Young was 2-for-4 with two RBIs to lead the way.
Marks, who has been a spark for Coastal Carolina all season, led off the bottom of the first with an infield single and came around to score on a sacrifice fly by junior Connor Owings.
In the third the Chants tacked on two more runs on an RBI double from Paez over the centerfielder’s head and a two-out RBI single from Young.
Young had another two-out RBI single in the fifth to make it 4-1, and after Bryant picked up a run on Rinn’s homer in the seventh, the Chants scored two more of their own in the bottom of the inning on a bloop single from Paez.
“We preach timely hitting, executing, moving over a guy, bunting – I had two sac bunts today – so executing is a really big key in our offense,” Paez said.
Junior David Parrett tacked on another insurance run on a sacrifice fly in the eighth and sophomore reliever Andrew Beckwith allowed only one hit over the final 1 2/3 innings to close out the win.
Bryant right-hander Kyle Wilcox (0-1), who is considered a potential early-round draft prospect and drew a handful of a Major League scouts Friday, took the loss while giving up four runs (two earned) and six hits over six innings with five strikeouts.
Coastal Carolina will give the ball to junior right-hander Tyler Poole (1-0, 5.23) on Saturday in the second game of the series while looking to build on this three-game winning streak.
“To our guys it is the first time where people can go and reevaluate how they pitch this guy and how they pitch that guy and make adjustments,” Gilmore said. “We’re going to have great challenge tomorrow. The young man they’re throwing (right-hander James Karinchak) is averaging 1.5 strikeouts an inning. Obviously he’s got some stuff that’s going to be a great challenge to us, so it will be interesting to see how we can combat that and also what kind of pitching we can get. If I can get four to five innings out of Tyler, I’ll be really happy if he can make it that far and get us to our bullpen with a chance to win.”