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|GAME AT A
Point: South Carolina never let Gerrit Cole get into a groove. After Cole got two quick outs to start the game, Jackie Bradley Jr. laid down a perfect drag bunt to spark a two-run rally, and the Gamecocks never looked back.
OMAHA—If you squinted, you might have sworn it was Jonah Nickerson toeing the rubber at Rosenblatt Stadium on Monday night.
In fact, the stocky righthander in question was South Carolina’s Blake Cooper. But he might shortly be joining Nickerson—a former Oregon State star—as a College World Series Most Outstanding Player.
Like Nickerson did in 2006, Cooper shined in his third start of the CWS, and like Nickerson he reached the 300-pitch mark in Omaha. Making his third start in nine days in Omaha, Cooper carried a one-hit shutout into the ninth inning, as South Carolina dominated UCLA, 7-1, in the first game of the CWS Finals on Monday.
For the second straight start, Cooper was working on three days’ rest—he threw 67 pitches last Sunday in South Carolina’s CWS opener, then 97 more Thursday against Oklahoma. Most observers expected the Gamecocks to save him for Game Two on Tuesday.
“The first day here we had the rain delay, and (his pitch count) was in the mid-60s, so I think that has helped him a little bit—the fact that he didn’t run too many pitches out there in the opener,” South Carolina coach Ray Tanner said. “But we met this morning and talked it over, Cooper and I did. I certainly wanted to pitch him today. But I encouraged him to take another day, if he felt that it would be in his best interests.
“And he just looked at me for a few minutes and said, ‘I’ll be as good today as I’ll be tomorrow. What’s the difference?’ I said, ‘It’s another day’s rest.’ And he said, ‘It ain’t going to matter to me. I’ll do the best I can do today and tomorrow.’ “
Cooper’s stuff was affected by the workload. He didn’t have his best fastball velocity, but Tanner pointed out that his two-seam fastball was sinking and running out of the zone, and the Bruins had trouble squaring it up.
“I could tell I wasn’t going to have enough giddy-up on my fastball,” Cooper said. “And I really wanted to rely on the sink and being able to throw curveballs and sliders for strikes, and I was able to do that early in the count—get some groundball outs and big strikeouts when I needed them.”
In fact, he got 10 strikeouts, tying the Finals record held by Texas’ Chance Ruffin (in 2009) and Cal State Fullerton’s Jason Windsor (in 2004). But that doesn’t fully capture his dominance.
UCLA did not muster a hit until there was one out in the fifth inning, when Steve Rodriguez singled to right field. The Bruins did not get another hit until the ninth, when they loaded the bases against a tiring Cooper—he started the frame over the 120-pitch mark and finished the game with 136 pitches—with no outs. That’s when Tanner replaced him with sidewinder John Taylor, who got a double play ball and a line out to end it.
Prior to the ninth, the Bruins managed to get just two runners into scoring position.
Cooper walked just one batter all game—in the ninth—and surrendered just three hits in eight-plus innings. Midway through the game, it was clear he was in a groove.
“I’ve been around Coop for a long time, and I felt comfortable he was going to get to the middle of that game, regardless of what kind of stuff he had, whether it was going to be a 4-4 game or whatever the situation was,” Tanner said. “He was going to be in the mix. And (pitching coach Mark) Calvi turned to me in the fifth and said, ‘We want to get a couple of guys loose?’ And I said, ‘It would be good, but we don’t need them for a few innings yet.’ “
“So Coop maxes out his ability. If you play a little defense behind him, he always keeps you there. I thought he was extra special tonight.”
Cooper got the better of much more high-profile counterpart Gerrit Cole, who allowed a season-high six runs (four earned) on a season-high 11 hits over seven innings. The man with the 97 mph fastball and devastating slider managed just two strikeouts, tying his career low.
The Gamecocks got to Cole in the first inning, scoring two runs on a bunt single, a bloop single, a check-swing RBI single and an error on a routine ground ball to second. The Bruins seemed shell-shocked to be trailing early when their ace wasn’t giving up hard contact.
The Gamecocks hit him harder in the second, scoring a run on a triple and a sharp RBI single. More sloppy UCLA defense helped spur another South Carolina rally in the third, when Bobby Haney delivered a huge two-run single to make the score 5-0.
“It was clearly their night from the get-go,” UCLA coach John Savage said. “They deserved to win the game. They dominated us, I think, in every phase, really.”
“They threw a couple of good punches, and . . . we figured if we put in a few more quality at-bats we’d be right in the game,” Bruins catcher Steve Rodriguez said. “Cooper was on his game tonight, and he didn’t allow us to do that.”
Instead, Cooper added to his CWS legacy. Through three starts in Omaha, he is 1-1, 2.41 with 21 strikeouts and four walks in 19 innings. Like Nickerson before him, Cooper gave his team’s beleaguered pitching staff exactly the boost it needed.
Maybe heroic performances like that are just required to win the national championship out of the losers’ bracket. Nickerson’s Beavers, incidentally, are the only team in the 64-team era (dating back to 1999) that battled through the losers’ bracket to win the title.
Cooper’s Gamecocks are one win away from following suit.