COLUMBIA -- Chris Cullen was standing on the concourse watching a few former Gamecock players now in the minors taking batting practice. He was laughing and smiling as the interview got started and he immediately got serious.
Then, the question he knew he’d be asked was lobbed out — “How are you feeling?” — and the smile crept back onto his face. He was excited to answer the question that’s hung over his head all offseason.
“It’s been a while. I definitely feel great right now,” Cullen said. “I can’t remember the last time I felt like this, 100 percent healthy.”
It’s been a long two years for Cullen, who has spent just as much time in the training room as behind the plate.
After a solid freshman year, a knee injury derailed his sophomore year and a back injury kept him in and out of the lineup and he limped to the end of last year hitting .190 with three home runs and 15 RBI.
This offseason, heading into his senior season, he realized “this is his last go round. He knows it’s do well now or maybe baseball’s over forever,” head coach Mark Kingston said.
Because of that, the senior tweaked his diet and went from 229 pounds at the beginning of fall practice to hovering around 218 pounds heading into the season. He says he feels like a “young Chris Cullen” again.
All of the weight he’s lost he’s characterized as bad weight, and it was a simple fix. He usually ate well during the day but started eating breakfast more and cutting out late-night snacks like Doritos and ice cream.
“The hardest thing was cutting out desserts. I’ve always eaten great lunch meals, dinner meals. I probably didn’t eat breakfast as much as I needed to stay healthy,” Cullen said. “But late at night playing PlayStation or watching a movie bored at home and I want to make something quick to eat that’s a little sweeter or extremely unhealthy, I had to have enough discipline to say no.”
Now, he’s playing probably as well as he has entering a season; he’s blocking better behind the plate, he’s got more life in his body and has simplified his swing to the point where he’s hitting for more power.
“I had kind of a choppy swing that created a lot of ground balls,” he said. “I kind of got my swing on plane and got my lower body into it a little more to maybe boost home run numbers a little more and give fans something to cheer about.”
It was a quick fix offensively for Cullen, who’s now letting his big 6-foot-5 frame do most of the work for him.
He’s keeping his arms short during his swing and using the leverage created by that long, tall body coming down on the ball to generate some lift. Now it’s a matter of carrying that swing over into the season.
“Chris is a guy where he’s so big if you’re not aware of keeping your swing shorter against good velocity, it makes it harder to hit being so tall and so long. He’s trying to make his movements efficient, which he’s done. He’s had a really good spring for us. Now it’s just a matter of being consistent,” Kingston said. “With him, now that he’s found the right feel for his mechanics now just maintain that.”
Cullen, who’s likely the starting catcher Friday in the Gamecocks’ season-opener, is one of three seniors on the team expected to contribute offensively. The others are Jacob Olson and T.J. Hopkins.
He got to watch last year as a quartet of seniors — Jonah Bride, Justin Row, Matt Williams and Hunter Taylor — finished one game away from the College World Series. He is hoping to go further in his final season.
“Those guys worked their tails off and went out with a bang,” Cullen said. “That’s something me, T.J. and Olson and the seniors want. We want to go out the same way. We want to have something to be proud about in our last season. We want to win a championship in our last season. We want to do it all here, and we have one more year to do it.”