Chris Cullen lost his job with South Carolina in 2018 to a leaner, stronger, more veteran player trying desperately to keep his baseball dreams alive.
Heading into 2019, the roles are reversed, and he’s trying to be that veteran player.
Now a senior, Cullen was an MLB draftee out of high school, ranked as a top-level recruit by Perfect Game. In his first season in 2016, he made an immediate impact, earning SEC All-Freshman honors and starting 41 games for a Super Regional team. His sophomore season started off strong as well, as Cullen was identified by the coaching staff as a potential breakout candidate. In 34 games, he hit .276 with five home runs and 18 RBIs. But a knee injury ended his year early.
Still, heading into his junior year, Cullen was expected to return and play an important role for the Gamecocks under new head coach Mark Kingston.
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That never happened. Hunter Taylor, a senior catcher who had never hit above .240 and had two home runs in three years, exploded onto the scene. Taylor lost 30 pounds before his final season while simultaneously getting stronger than ever, impressing Kingston enough to become the full-time starter. He hit .261 with nine homers and 34 RBIs — more than his previous three years combined. He started 47 of 63 games, including virtually every game down the stretch.
Cullen, meanwhile, regressed. With Taylor catching, he bounced around from first base to third base to designated hitter. The majority of his 32 starts came earlier in the season, and he hit just .190, striking out more than he got hits. Nagging injuries once again frustrated him.
“Any time an athlete has to deal with injuries, it’s extremely frustrating, and I’m not going to sit here and tell you it’s not been frustrating, because it has been. But you just got to try to put all that past you,” Cullen said.
Now in 2019, Taylor is gone, but Cullen will still have to fend off former high school All-American Luke Berryhill and talented freshman Wes Clarke to re-take the starting catcher spot. In order to do so, he’s tried to do exactly what Taylor did.
“It was kinda obvious — Hunter had his career year because he put the work in over holiday breaks, stuff like that, getting in better shape and losing some unhealthy weight and just getting in the best possible shape he could for his senior season. And we took that approach this year and I lost some bad weight myself. I’m feeling good, I’m probably feeling the best I’ve felt,” Cullen said.
Listed at 226 pounds as a junior, Cullen is now down to 215, his lowest weight since he was a freshman. He’s lost that extra poundage with help from the team’s nutritionist, Tommy Jensen. The key, he said, was less about giving up a major staple in his diet and more about a behavioral change.
“It’s just the extra snacking that really got me. I’ve just been crushing a bunch of proteins, vegetables and enough carbs to keep me energetic. But when I’m just chilling at home and get bored, playing PlayStation, watching a movie, I can’t go to the pantry and grab a bag of chips or drink a soda or something like that. So I gotta be disciplined in what I do at home,” Cullen explained.
The motivation to do so was obvious.
“I’m trying to get a sweet six-pack for the beach, so that motivation’s always helpful,” Cullen joked.
In all seriousness, though, this is it for Cullen. After going undrafted as a junior, he needs a breakout senior season like Taylor had to have a chance at pro baseball.
“Chris knows this is his last go-around,” Kingston said. “He knows that it’s do well, or maybe baseball’s over. So he’s made a major commitment physically to get in the best shape he’s ever been in, by far the best shape I’ve seen him in since I’ve been here. You can see, there’s more life in the body, more energy, there’s a better attitude on a daily basis.”
On the field, Cullen has distinguished himself as the Gamecocks’ best defensive catcher, Kingston has said this preseason, particularly with his blocking ability. At the plate, he’s been swinging the bat well, but so have Berryhill and Clarke. That competition has remained friendly, though, despite the stakes for Cullen.
“As long as I’ve been here all the catchers have been awesome friends, we’ve all supported each other, but the competition every single day is tough,” Cullen said. “We’re all pushing each other, we’re all trying to make each other better, but at the same time, the friendship is still there.”
Should either of them beat out Cullen for the starting job, he said he is willing to play other positions as asked, though he considers himself a catcher at heart.
“I see myself doing whatever coach Kingston needs me to do. I’m confident enough and prepared enough,” Cullen said.