CCU’s Cooke, Cunningham go in draft’s top 10 rounds

ccubase-cookeswingCoastal Carolina centerfielder Billy Cooke and pitcher Alex Cunningham were selected in the 2017 Major League Baseball Draft on Tuesday. Cooke was drafted by the Seattle Mariners in the eighth round (243rd pick overall) and Cunningham was picked in the ninth round (258th overall) by the San Diego Padres.

A Chanticleer has been selected within the first 10 rounds of the Major League draft for 10 consecutive seasons and, with Cooke and Cunningham, a total of 18 Chanticleers have gone within the first 10 rounds over the same span. The pair also becomes the 15th and 16th Chanticleers to come to Coastal since 2000 without being drafted out of high school and picked within the first 10 rounds after their time at Coastal.

Cooke, the 2017 Sun Belt Player of the Year, was a key cog in leading Coastal Carolina to regular season Sun Belt Championship. Through the regular season, he led the league in batting, on base percentage and runs scored while being the only player in the league to rank among its top eight in batting, on base percentage, runs scored, slugging percentage, stolen bases, total bases, hits, doubles, walks and home runs. He additionally ranked among the league’s top four in hit by pitch, sacrifice flies and sacrifice bunts. In addition to his offensive prowess, Cooke made numerous highlight reel plays in centerfield throughout the season. In conference games only, he ranked among the top six in eight categories.

For the year, Cooke led the team in batting (.353), hits (71), runs scored (52), doubles, (15), walks (38), hit by pitch (16), on base percentage (.479), slugging percentage (.587), sacrifice flies (6) and stolen bases (21) while ranking second on the team in home runs (10) and third in RBI (38).

What made Cooke’s numbers even more impressive is that he was Coastal’s leadoff hitter, a spot that does not lend itself to the power numbers he has posted. In fact, when he was the leadoff hitter for an inning, Cooke reached base 51.8 percent of the time (44 of 85 opportunities) and, of his 44 times reaching base to start and inning, he scored 27 times (61.3 percent). Cooke reached base safely (hit/walk/hit by pitch) in his first 25 games of the season and had a streak of 28 games dating back to last season. For the 2017 season, he reached base safely in 52 of his 56 games, including a hit in 36 of those 56 contests.

Cooke’s career got off to a slow start due to a near season-ending injury as a freshman as he played in just 25 games (10 starts) and batted .148. However, he batted .324 last season with 27 stolen bases to earned honorable mention all-conference and he was named to the NCAA Raleigh Regional All-Tournament team.

Cooke earned President’s List (4.0 GPA) this past spring, earned Dean’s List three times and carried at least a 3.0 GPA for each of his three academic years at Coastal. For his career, he batted .326 with 103 runs scored, 152 hits, 32, doubles, 13 home runs, 75 RBI, a .483 slugging percentage, 51 stolen bases and a .438 on base percentage thanks to 74 walks and 26 hit by pitches.

Cunningham, a second team Collegiate Baseball All-American, graduated from Coastal in the spring of 2016 (Management) but returned for his senior year to pursue his M.B.A. despite being drafted in the 28th round (835th pick overall) by the Detroit Tigers last season.

This past season, the right-hander was twice named a National Player of the Week by Collegiate Baseball and named a National Collegiate Baseball Writers Association National Pitcher of the Week once.

Cunningham finished the season with a 7-2 record and a 2.63 ERA. He led the Sun Belt and, prior to NCAA tournament action ranked 13th in the NCAA with 117 strikeouts (currently 19th), which ranks fifth on the CCU single-season list. He additionally ranks among the national leaders in WHIP (19th; 0.83) and fewest hits allowed per nine innings (38th; 6.37) as opponents had a meager .195 batting average. In Sun Belt games, Cunningham also posted a league-best 84 strikeouts and threw a league-best 75.0 innings. Of those 75 innings, Cunningham tallied 38 3-up, 3-down frames.

A first team All-Sun Belt selection, Cunningham was a three-time Sun Belt Pitcher of the Week pick this season.

In March, he threw back-to-back, complete-game shutouts in leading the Chanticleers to wins over Arkansas State and Georgia State. Against the Red Wolves, he struck out 10 and just missed Coastal’s fourth no-hitter as he only allowed one hit, an infield single with one out in the eighth. His performance was pressure packed as the CCU offense only managed three hits through six innings and CCU did not score until the seventh inning before pulling away for a 5-0 victory. The following week at Georgia State, he allowed five hits, walked none and struck out 11 Panthers. In that dominant win, he only went to “ball 3” on a GSU batter once — a 3-2 count that led to a ground ball for the final out of the third inning. In fact, the only faced “ball 2” a total of eight times, including the one time he went to “ball 3.”

His third honor came in the final series of the season as he tied his own CCU single-game record with 14 strikeouts in a win over Appalachian State. Cunningham was 2 outs shy of his third complete-game shutout as he exited when retiring the leadoff batter in the ninth. (He exited due to his pitch count being (120 and CCU coaches wanted to give him the stage for a standing ovation in his final game at Springs Brooks Stadium.) He struck out the first two batters of the game on just six pitches and went on to retire each of the first 12 batters he faced before allowing a leadoff infield single in the fifth. Overall, he stuck out at least two in five of his 8.1 innings, including all three outs in the eighth.

The App State game marked the second time this season Cunningham tied the CCU single-game record as he fanned 14 in 6.2 innings versus San Francisco on March 3.

Cunningham was 25-7 in 57 career games (46 starts) with a 3.06 ERA. He struck out 295 batters in 315.0 innings with just 102 walks and an opponent batting average of .226. In the CCU record book, Cunningham ranks fifth in strikeouts (295), sixth in games started (46), eighth in innings pitched (315.0) and 11th in wins (25). He did record one save in his career, that coming as he pitched the final three innings versus Arizona in the championship game of the 2016 College World Series. He only struck out one in that outing, but it came as CCU held a one-run lead with runners on second and third for the final out to secure Coastal’s national championship.

Photo courtesy of CCU Athletics

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