Staff Photo: John Bohn Gwinnett Braves center fielder Todd Cunningham throws a ball to teammates prior to the start of a game against the Columbus Clippers at Coolray Field.
LAWRENCEVILLE -- "He's mastered it," Jaime Dismuke shouts.
Todd Cunningham just laughs. No one can master pitching. The greatest ever are no masters. But for the Gwinnett Braves center fielder, hitting in June certainly came close to the mastery his pitching coaches suggested.
Even with a slight swoon in the final couple games, Cunningham watched his batting average climb 25 points to .283 in the month. He hit .324 in 108 at-bats in June, up almost 60 points from May.
"Any time you are with a new team there is kind of a transition period," Cunningham said. "You are probably trying to do a little too much, trying to make an impact, a next-level kind of thing.
"It just took some time to work out the kinks and settle in, I think."
A second-round draft pick out of Jacksonville State in Alabama in 2010, Cunningham climbed to Class AAA at a steady pace. In a limited 87 games with high-A Lynchburg in 2011, the outfielder hit .257 with 12 doubles in a season interrupted by an elbow injury. The next season, he stepped up to Class AA Mississippi where he patrolled center field and hit a career high .309 in 120 games, slugging .403. The season propelled him to a No. 12 overall prospect ranking in the Braves organization by Baseball America.
During his climb he slowly gravitated to center field after playing in the left and shortstop in college and starting his professional career as a third baseman. To this point this season, Cunningham has barely wavered in his defense with the G-Braves. His two errors came in the same game, April 12 at Charlotte.
"Defense is just kind of one of those things, the ball is hit, you go and catch it. Hopefully it continues to be that (easy)," Cunningham said. "The longer I can stay in the middle the better, obviously. I am not going to prototype as a big corner guy like (Joey Terdoslavich) or anything like that. The longer I can stay in the middle, the better."
Set in his spot defensively, Cunningham's offensive position hopped around in the early portion of the season. Despite his speed, the first-year Class AAA player found himself batting toward the bottom of the order. The top spots were saved for Jose Constanza and Tyler Pastornicky, both back-and-forth big leaguers.
"That was a different role for me, I was trying to do too much probably," Cunningham said. "I started to bounce around and settle in and found myself at the top of the order."
Of all the positions in the order, Cunningham's production is highest at No. 2. He gets to watch the pitches Constanza takes, yet still plays the role of table-setter rather than RBI guy.
"That's where I am most comfortable hitting," Cunningham said. "It took some time to find that equilibrium kind of position (in the lineup)."
But where he fell in the lineup was just one challenge. The highest level of the minors is filled with pitchers, both relievers and starters, with big league experience and more veteran savvy. The rising prospects are replaced with polished professionals.
"As opposed to double-A where it's a lot of power arms that are coming at you with hard stuff, now it's guys who can throw 88-90 with movement and throw their offspeed for strikes," Cunningham said. "It's more a craft as opposed to one-on-one power match-up. Now they have a cutter, sinker, four-seamer, not to mention their change-up and a curveball."
This past winter, Cunningham went to Mexico to keep playing and he said it helped seeing pitchers who throw more "junk" instead of just heat. Down there he hit .274.
"It was good to be exposed to that before I got here," Cunningham said. "But here you definitely see a lot more of it for strikes."
That's plenty to master, but Cunningham seems closer now. It just took effort and patience. He ended up where he needed and the results followed.
"It was just a getting out of my way kind of thing and just stop trying to do too much and let things happen," he said.
-- What: G-Braves homestand
-- When: Today-July 11
-- Where: Coolray Field
-- Schedule:vs. Charlotte-- Today, 7:05 p.m.
-- Friday, 7:05 p.m.vs. Durham-- Saturday, 7:05 p.m.
-- Sunday, 5:05 p.m.vs. Norfolk-- Monday, 6:05 p.m.
-- Tuesday, 6:05 p.m.
-- Wednesday, 6:05 p.m.
-- July 11, 12:05 p.m.