Coach Gary Gilmore has commented several times this spring that for the Coastal Carolina baseball team to make a postseason run and really do something special, the Chanticleers need junior Alex Cunningham to perform like the ace of the pitching staff.
Well, the overall numbers may not fit that mold, but in his last two starts the Chants have gotten everything they could hope for out of the junior right-hander.
And Friday night Cunningham was simply masterful.
He scattered nine hits, but he didn’t walk anybody, didn’t allow a run until the ninth inning and racked up a season-high 10 strikeouts while throwing the first complete game of his career in a 5-2 win over Presbyterian before 1,251 fans at Springs Brooks Stadium.
“That was the best pitched game we’ve had all season from a starting pitcher,” Gilmore said. “That was very, very good. I thought it was by far the most complete game he’s thrown. He had command of his breaking ball from beginning to end, he threw a bunch of good change-ups and really competed out there for us.”
That gives the Chants (25-10, 9-1 Big South) 12 wins in their last 13 games.
It was also the first complete game thrown by a Coastal Carolina pitcher since Austin Kerr hurled a shutout on April 18, 2014, also against Presbyterian.
Cunningham was vying for a shutout too until Presbyterian’s Weston Jackson crushed a home run to left to open the ninth inning. The Blue Hose plated a second run as well after third baseman Zach Remillard dropped a pop-up to allow A.J. Priaulx to reach base and Rob Koski later followed with an RBI double.
Cunningham punctuated his strong performance with a game-sealing strikeout, though, and admitted he was both relieved and excited to get that final out.
“It’s my first collegiate complete game, [but] it’s a team effort,” he said. “A complete game is a team effort. You know, it’s defense, it’s wanting to pitch behind the offense, that’s just a team win.”
The offense did its part. Remillard put the Chants ahead with an RBI single in the first inning, Connor Owings clubbed a solo shot in the fourth for his sixth home run of the season and G.K. Young crushed a solo homer into the parking lot in right field in the fifth to match the team lead with eight homers.
Owings then doubled in the sixth and scored on a sacrifice fly from Kevin Woodall Jr and Seth Lancaster made it 5-0 later that inning on a run-scoring sac bunt.
Owings now has a 14 game-hit streak with nine multi-hit games in that span and in his last 21 games he’s batting .465 (33-for-71).
“I feel very comfortable in the box right now, obviously,” he said. “It’s funny just because I still feel like there’s still some stuff I could get way better at and do way better. I’m still missing some pitches and stuff like that. There’s always opportunity to get better, but you’ve got to take what you get.
“Honestly it’s just been a different demeanor I’ve took to the plate. I’ve just tried to stay middle of the field and just hunt fastballs and if I get something to hit I hit it. It’s just really been good.”
Still, Cunningham was the story of the game, and he seemed to gain momentum with some clutch pitching in the early innings.
He had runners on second and third with one out in the second and got out of the frame with a strikeout and flyout
In the fourth, the Blue Hose (18-15, 5-5) had runners on first and second with no outs after a Chants error, but Cunningham worked out of that situation too, getting an unconventional 5-1-6 double play on a poor bunt attempt before inducing a flyout to end the threat.
And he mostly cruised from there before losing the shutout in the ninth. He ended up throwing 121 pitches, but Gilmore said it wasn’t a tough decision to let him finish the game.
“He was at like 99-100 pitches, and if we catch a pop-up in the infield he throws 10 or 12 [less]. He’s a competitor,” Gilmore said. “Heck, you don’t get into that point of the game in college or pro ball, it doesn’t happen every day unless you’re Nolan Ryan or Randy Johnson or somebody. Most guys don’t get that deep in a game and have a chance. To CG it is huge. ...
“That’s the guy this team so desperately needs. We’re not going to get a CG out of him every time, but if he can get us to the seventh inning against really good teams that will change some of the things in our battle to try to manage seven or eight arms.”
Cunningham improved to 6-1 with the win and has lowered his ERA from 5.45 to 3.97 after allowing just one earned run over 17 innings with no walks and 15 strikeouts in his last two starts.
“He’s finally getting to a point where he’s getting his body moving and he’s on time. The thing now is he’s commanding his fastball better than he has all year as well,” Gilmore said. “That sets up all the other stuff. He must have thrown easily 20 strikes with his curveball and probably another 10 or 12 with his change-up tonight, which has been nonexistent so far. So that’s a huge step for him and for us.”
Cunningham added that he and pitching coach Drew Thomas have spent a lot of time lately working on getting his breaking ball over for strikes.
While Gilmore has mentioned several times how he needs Cunningham to be a steady No. 1 starter for the Chants, the veteran righty doesn’t see himself as the ace of the staff necessarily.
But he knows what it means to the team when he pitches like he did Friday night.
“As far as I’m concerned we have two or three aces. Even out of the bullpen you’ve got guys like [Mike] Morrison and [Andrew] Beckwith. They’re shutdown guys,” he said. “But yeah, I said this last year, I want to be the rock for the team, I want to go out Friday night and have a shutdown game and win every Friday. That’s my goal.”
Sophomore right-hander Bobby Holmes (3-1, 5.35 ERA) will start the second game of the three-game series Saturday at 2 p.m. while Presbyterian is slated to throw right-hander Tanner Chock (1-2, 5.31).