After a summer in which he was on top of his game, Chase Cunningham’s winter will be spent pitching in the land down under.
The former Tennessee High star will play winter ball for Australia’s Kensington Cardinals over the course of the next few months, the continuation of a memorable calendar year.
Cunningham was 10-5 with a 3.23 ERA in 22 games (21 starts) in his first season with the Southern Illinois Miners of the independent Frontier League.
“This season was definitely one for the books,” Cunningham said. “The new team was really just a bunch of great guys that really seemed to get along and make the season enjoyable, both on and off the field.”
After three successful summers with the Washington Wild Things, Cunningham was dealt to Southern Illinois in an offseason trade and quickly took over the role of staff ace.
“I had tried to acquire Chase in the previous season in a trade, but wasn’t able to put it together,” said Southern Illinois manager Mike Pinto. “I had always been impressed with his consistency, his plan against hitters and competitiveness from across the field. It is so valuable as a manger to have a pitcher who is able to go to the bump every five days and go deep into ballgames.”
Cunningham was indeed a workhorse as the right-hander’s 136 2/3 innings led the Frontier League. His 132 strikeouts ranked second.
“I can’t really single out a particular start, because he had so many good ones,” Pinto said. “There were times when we were so desperate for a quality start, maybe short on bullpen due to overuse and he did what your ace does. He basically said, ‘I got this’ and dominated the start we needed. … There are so many things I like about Chase. His pure professionalism both on and off the field; his inner desire to compete and win; and his approach to his craft and gameplanning.”
Cunningham was so good that he earned Frontier League pitcher of the year honors.
“Winning the pitcher of the year has always been a goal for me, especially coming to a new team where no one knew how good or bad I was,” Cunningham said. “It was just really nice to see all the work done behind closed doors paying off on the field. … Honestly, when Mike Pinto called me, it surprised me a little. I knew at the time that I was leading in a couple of pitching categories, but I honestly still wasn’t quite sure how good my chances were because I was not leading in lowest ERA. It was definitely a wonderful call to receive [in August] while I was playing golf that morning.”
Despite toiling in the independent leagues for five seasons and putting up solid numbers, the 26-year-old Cunningham has not gotten a chance to suit up for a Major League Baseball organization.
“If an affiliated team came a calling, I would definitely have to keep playing,” Cunningham said. “My dream will always be to play Major League Baseball and I work, and will work, continuously for that till my time has to come. I actually just got back from a MLB workout [recently] and I’ve had a little interest, but I just try and focus on what I can control and hopefully, the numbers can show for themselves.”
Cunningham has experienced several offseason adventures previously – he has worked at UPS, spent time shadowing different doctors when he was considering medical school and has even done some coaching.
“The past two seasons I’ve been doing player development back home in Bristol trying to pass whatever knowledge I have gained to our youth and hopefully, keep progressing in that direction,” Cunningham said. “I find player development fascinating for all ages and have really focused on learning as much as possible over the past couple of offseasons.”
As for his immediate future, Cunningham will try to keep getting hitters out.
This time he’ll do it in the Outback.
“Who knows what will be next?” Cunningham said. “I always just have to thank my family and friends for the constant support through this crazy journey. And of course the Lord for blessing me with everything that I have and keeping me healthy and on the right path.”