ERIE - Jarek Cunningham enjoyed a big game in Thursday's opener, and it's exactly what the Curve second baseman needed after struggling through a disappointing rookie year in Double-A.
"It's a huge confidence boost," Cunningham said after ripping a solo homer to left-center and RBI double to deep center while scoring twice in the Curve's 10-6 loss to Erie.
Cunningham came to Double-A with a lot of confidence last year after belting 15 homers in only 80 games at high-A Bradenton in 2011. But as is the case with so many young players, he had trouble figuring out this level.
Good prospects often get one do-over in Double-A. If they struggle their first season but excel in their second, they can remain on a good prospect path.
Struggle in a Double-A for a second time, however, and all of a sudden prospects are viewed differently by organizations. No more benefit of the doubt. No more guaranteed playing time every day. Other young players are coming up, so they become priority guys over someone who's already had two chances.
That's what makes this level such a great weeding-out process.
It's also why this is now the most important season of the 23-year-old Cunningham's career.
He started it off with a bang Thursday.
"Definitely you want to see this kind of game from him," Curve manager Carlos Garcia said. "This is a year where he's counting on being healthy. Nothing is bothering him right now, and if you're healthy and ready to play, with that talent that he has, you want him to perform well every night."
Cunningham was limited to 105 games last year because of a wrist injury. He missed a month from late April to late May, and while he said he didn't have any issues with the wrist after that, his production with the Curve didn't come close to his or the Pirates' expectations.
Cunningham wound up hitting just .217 with six homers, 45 RBIs and a .637 OPS in 105 games. He's a better hitter than that, especially when it comes to driving the ball, and he will have to prove it this year.
"I just didn't get into the position I needed to get in and got out of my rhythm and started playing pitchers' games," Cunningham said of his 2012 season.
"I came in geared up for the fastball. Then when I started to get a lot more offspeed, I missed the fastball that they'd give me. And I'd miss the offspeed, too, because I'd miss on an easy pitch to hit. Then after that I was just kind of lost, guessing on pitches."
Cunningham's batting average was consistent for most of last year as he remained in the .215-.220 range for pretty much the entire second half. He just wasn't able to get over that hump with a good streak that he could sustain.
As the season wears on, poor numbers become tougher to turn around, and it's hard for hitters to ignore them.
"You look at the scoreboard every time you're walking up and you see that [batting average] and you're like, jeez, I'm really there," Cunningham said. "Every at-bat, if you have a successful at-bat they'll add up, and if you don't, it will go down a lot quicker than it goes up."
Cunningham spent time this offseason getting back to the hitting basics and says he's "in a good place right now" with his offensive mindset. Thursday's opener surely helped in that regard.
The Curve need Cunningham to have a good year if they're going to be a good team. And Cunningham needs a good year if he's going to remain a solid prospect in the Pirates' eyes.
Cory Giger can be reached at 949-7031. Follow him on Twitter @CoryGiger.