Andrew Beckwith Content To Be Bridge For Now For Defending Champs
CONWAY, S.C.--Throughout the offseason, Coastal Carolina prepared to set up its pitching staff with righthander Andrew Beckwith, the 2016 College World Series' Most Outstanding Player, at the front of its rotation. He had been the Chanticleers' horse down the stretch last season, especially in Omaha where he won all three of his starts--the national championship clinching game against Arizona and complete game victories against Florida and Texas Christian.
Beckwith had primarily been a reliever during his college career, but after a move to the rotation in May, he had become one of the best starters in the country. As he entered his senior year, he seemed destined to start on Opening Day.
But three weeks ago, Beckwith and senior Alex Cunningham, the rotation's other stalwart, looked at the makeup of Coastal's pitching staff and came to a realization: the Chanticleers would be better if Beckwith served as the team's relief ace and Cunningham as the Friday starter, at least at the outset of the season.
"Alex Cunningham and I, we talked off the field and we were just like, right now, playing a different team every day, we're not in our conference play, we're not having three-game series, so I think we have more starters than relievers who have been here and have proven it," Beckwith said.
The Chanticleers return the three starters they used down the stretch last season--Beckwith, Cunningham and Jason Bilous. But the loss of closer Mike Morrison left a big hole in the bullpen. Setup man Bobby Holmes could take over closing games, but someone needed to get him the ball.
Beckwith and Cunningham felt like the answer to the pitching staff's problem was simple. Together they approached pitching coach Drew Thomas with their idea. Thomas agreed with the assessment, as did head coach Gary Gilmore.
"We spent three entire weeks trying to piecemeal a bullpen together that could get us from our starters to our closer," Gilmore said. "And it didn't go great. So instead of putting some guys in late-inning situations where the game's on the line and you've got to control the running game and so many things are going on--two or three of these guys have never pitched here. So we decided and Beckwith kind of wanted to do it as well, be a bullpen piece in the beginning.
"I can promise you, there will be a point this year where he will be pitching on Friday night. Just right now, trying to get some other guys' feet wet, get a little confidence in them, doing something they're comfortable doing, knowing they're going to pitch and whatever trouble they get into, they create themselves instead of me giving it to them. As soon as they get a little experience, we'll flip-flop it and they'll become the bridge between the back-end-of-the-game-guy in Holmes and our starters and we'll go back to Beckwith on Friday night, Cunningham on Saturday and Bilous on Sunday."
So, on Friday, when No. 15 Coastal opened the season against Richmond at Springs Brooks Stadium, it was Cunningham who started the game. He threw five innings before Beckwith relieved him to start the sixth inning.
The formula worked, and Coastal defeated Richmond, 8-5. Cunningham allowed four runs (two earned) in five innings to pick up the victory, while Beckwith held the Spiders to one hit in two scoreless innings of relief.
Gilmore said Friday's game is a blueprint for how he hopes to use Beckwith early in the season.
"That's kind of how we're hoping we can do it--Beckwith for two or three innings and then a day or maybe even two days off to come back," Gilmore said. "Bobby and (Austin) Kitchen, use those three guys mainly until other guys get their feet wet. Once they do we'll be fine."
In addition to the staff's composition, Coastal's schedule helped convince Gilmore to start the season with Beckwith in the bullpen. The Chanticleers play four games at this weekend's Caravelle Resort Baseball at the Beach tournament and then play College of Charleston on Wednesday.
With so many games at the start of the season when starters are still building up their pitch counts, having Beckwith available out of the bullpen to bridge the middle innings is of greater importance.
"It's huge, especially when your idiot head coach schedules five games in six days right out of the chute," Gilmore said.
Like Coastal's staff, Beckwith and Cunningham are still rounding into form. Beckwith struck out three batters and threw in the 80s Friday while mixing his arm angles. Cunningham gave up eight hits and struck out three batters--all on 92 mph fastballs. He said he struggled to throw his offspeed stuff for strikes.
"I was a little nervous, I'm not going to lie to you," Cunningham said. "It's been a long time since I've thrown against another team. Moving forward, I can take that, I can take the good things that I did and the bad things that I did and more so focus on the bad things and just continue to get better. It's a process."
As they grow, so will the Chanticleers. Not only is the pitching staff still working itself out, but Coastal is breaking in a new lineup after losing six regulars from last season's team. The Opening Day results were good, but Gilmore knows the Chanticleers are far from a finished product.
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"We're not going to be an Omaha team until the end, if we are at all," Gilmore said. "(I'm) not worried about us being one today because that doesn't do us any good. We need to build and build and build all year long and go into the end of the year and be the team that's really a huge team of guys all playing well, understanding their roles and executing their roles and doing the things we can do. If we grow the way I hope we will, this team will be really good."