Jacksonville's Cunningham enjoying his time in the big leagues
by Al Muskewitz
Jul 31, 2013 | 2701 views |  0 comments | 20 20 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Switch-hitter Todd Cunningham, a former star at Jacksonville High and Jacksonville State, delivers a single in his first major league at-bat. (AP photo by John Bazemore)
Switch-hitter Todd Cunningham, a former star at Jacksonville High and Jacksonville State, delivers a single in his first major league at-bat. (AP photo by John Bazemore)
Todd Cunningham woke up Wednesday morning from one of his most restful sleeps in weeks in a Braves new world.

It was the start of his second day as a big leaguer and even though it was raining outside, the day couldn't have been brighter.

On Monday morning, he was a minor-league outfielder, one of many players on the edge of making it to The Show but still waiting for the call.

That call came Monday night, and the next day, the 24-year-old Jacksonville product was in the majors, even delivering his first big-league hit in his only at-bat in the Braves' 11-3 rout of Colorado.

"I didn't get much sleep the night before after getting the phone call, there was a lot of tossing and turning, and then there was the excitement of the game," Cunningham said Wednesday as he was driving to Turner Field from the apartment he shares with his former Triple-A teammates. "Coming down off that high, I crashed kind of hard last night. Then I wake up and you realize I get a chance to do it again.

"It's just one of those surreal feelings. You almost have to pinch yourself. I'm still living in the same apartment with guys who are playing Triple-A ball. I went out to lunch with my roommate. It didn't feel any different until now when I'm headed out to Turner Field to lace it up again. It's a cool feeling, but I don't think it's quite set in yet."

The Braves have had their eye on Cunningham since they day they took him — as a third baseman — in the second round of the 2010 draft out of Jacksonville State. They purchased his contract after putting Reed Johnson on the 15-day disabled list with tendinitis in his left knee. Cunningham was hitting .279 with 12 doubles, 18 stolen bases and 54 runs in 99 games at Triple-A Gwinnett.

The Braves don't bring up players just to fill roster spots. They sent Cunningham to the plate as a pinch-hitter in the seventh and he stayed through a 2-0 change-up from Jeff Francis enough to get it into left field for a single. He scored on Freddie Freeman's second homer of the game.

"I had a chance to talk with Reed, who's an experienced pinch-hitter, maybe the best in the big leagues last year, and he took some time to talk me through how he approaches it," Cunningham said. "He was telling me the Braves have been hitting .300 off the bench this year, which is kind of undheard of, so whatever they're doing is working. Obviously I'm going to listen to him.”

Cunningham said his preparation began in about the third inning, making sure he stayed loose and keeping track of the game so he sould make his at-bat count.

"So once the time came and Fredi (Gonzalez) was like, 'Grab a bat you're hitting,' it was like I've already prepared now let's go do it. It's wasn't a matter of, ‘Oh, crap, I have to get ready,’” he said. "It was nice to have it explained to me and be walked through the process of how they had been successful at it. That definitely made it easier.

“Then once you get the knock ... you can kind of take a breath because you get the first one out of the way."

It almost took him as long to get the ball as it did for him to get to the big leagues. At first, Johnson presented him a decoy ball with a bunch of mispelled words that described the hit as a broken-bat single off some other pitcher. But after having their fun at the rookie's expense, his teammates finally got him the real thing, which Cunningham turned over to his mother for what he hoped was safe-keeping back in Jacksonville.

He can only hope it doesn't meet the same fate as the ball he got for his first hit as a pro.

"I think it was my first professional hit I gave it to mom and our dog chewed it up," he said.

Cunningham doesn't know how long this stint will last with the Braves. B.J. Upton begins his rehab assignment in Gwinnett today, and Jordan Schafer, another injured outfielder, starts his in a few days.

If nothing else, he should be back up when major league rosters expand from 25 players to as many as 40 in September. In the meantime, he just wants to do as well as he can.

"Hopefully, I get a chance to hang around for as long as possible, but I understand there's definitely action that's going to happen in the rosters," he said. "Hopefully, I just get a chance to perform and take advantage of this opportunity, and if it doesn't work out with Atlanta then maybe some other team will be like, 'Hey, we need that guy.'

"You just never know. It's more about taking advantage of the time that you have. I know Reed's on the 15-day DL, maybe I'll sneak out two weeks, maybe I'll be gone as soon as B.J. comes back. Who knows?"

Al Muskewitz is a sports writer for The Anniston Star. He can be reached at 256-235-3577.

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