Commentary

Cooper slams the door on Bruins

Originally Published: June 29, 2010
By Mark Schlabach | ESPN.com

OMAHA, Neb. -- South Carolina has fielded a baseball team since 1892.

The Gamecocks have played football for more than 110 seasons and men's basketball for more than a century. They've played sports such as golf, swimming and diving, tennis and track and field for as long as anyone can remember, too.

[+] EnlargeBlake Cooper
AP Photo/Nati HarnikOn three days' rest, Blake Cooper turned in a masterful performance in South Carolina's Game 1 win with 10 K's and three hits in eight innings.

Amazingly, after each of those seasons, a South Carolina men's team has never been able to call itself a national champion.

But after a pitching performance for the ages Monday night, the Gamecocks can end that dubious drought with one more victory over UCLA in the championship series of the last College World Series played at Rosenblatt Stadium (Game 2: 7:30 p.m. Tuesday on ESPN/ESPN3.com).

"We're not thinking about that," South Carolina coach Ray Tanner said Monday night after the Gamecocks defeated the Bruins 7-1 in the first game of the best-of-three championship series. "That's too much to think about."

If the Gamecocks get another pitching performance like the one they got Monday night, they'll finally be able to hang a national championship banner back in Columbia, S.C.

Pitching on only three days' rest, senior Blake Cooper took a no-hitter into the fifth inning and scattered only three hits in eight innings. He struck out 10 hitters and allowed only two runners to reach second base before tiring in the bottom of the ninth.

"He just made pitch after pitch after pitch," Tanner said.

A crowd of 23,181 arrived at Rosenblatt Stadium on Monday night expecting a dominating pitching performance.

But it wasn't supposed to come from Cooper's right arm.

The Bruins were considered the favorites in the championship series because of their strong starting pitching. UCLA had the country's second-lowest ERA this season and broke a Pac-10 record for strikeouts in a season.

Sophomore Gerrit Cole, a first-round pick of the New York Yankees in the 2008 MLB amateur draft, started Monday night after striking out 13 batters in a 6-3 victory over TCU at Rosenblatt Stadium a week earlier.

But South Carolina scored two runs off Cole in the first inning on three consecutive singles and a UCLA error. Evan Marzilli singled in Scott Wingo in the second, and the Gamecocks added two runs in the third to take a 5-0 lead.

"It was clearly South Carolina's night," UCLA coach John Savage said. "It just seemed like we got off to a rough start. Two outs in the first inning, and they touched the ball a couple of times. I thought their hitters did a terrific job off of Gerrit of touching the ball, and they got rewarded."

The Gamecocks never hit Cole particularly hard, but that was more than the Bruins could muster against Cooper.

"He mixed it up well tonight," Savage said. "He kept us off balance. We didn't make enough adjustments at the plate, obviously, with only three hits. He pounded the strike zone and threw his changeup and breaking ball for strikes."

Tanner wasn't even sure Cooper would be able to pitch Monday night. Cooper, from Neeses, S.C., already had started two College World Series games. He threw 67 pitches in five innings of a rain-soaked 4-3 loss to Oklahoma on June 20, then threw 97 pitches in 5 2/3 innings of a 3-2, 12-inning win over the Sooners four days later.

Tanner said he met with Cooper at the team hotel on Monday morning to make sure his workhorse was capable of facing Cole.

"I certainly wanted him to pitch," Tanner said. "But I encouraged him to take another day if he felt that it would be in his best interest. 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?'"

It's hard to imagine Cooper being any better than he was Monday night. He threw 136 pitches and never seemed to be in trouble until the ninth inning, when UCLA's first three hitters reached base. Reliever John Taylor induced a double play and fly ball to end the UCLA threat in the ninth, giving Cooper his 13th win of the season.

"I felt fine warming up today," Cooper said. "I could tell I wasn't going to have enough giddy-up on my fastball. I really wanted to rely on the sinker and being able to throw curveballs and sliders for strikes, and I was able to do that early in the count. I was able to get some ground-ball outs and get some big strikeouts when I needed them."

[+] EnlargeUCLA
Crystal LoGiudice/US PresswireGerrit Cole and UCLA had no answers for the Gamecocks on Monday night. The Bruins face elimination on Tuesday.

And now the Gamecocks are one victory from being considered the greatest team in school history. The school's women's outdoor track and field team won an NCAA championship in 2002, but a men's team has never been able to call itself the best in the country.

South Carolina's baseball team has been close to winning a national championship before, finishing second in 1975, '77 and 2002.

"I just told the guys we're going to do the things we've done all year," Tanner said. "It's just another game for us tomorrow. We'll try to put it together and try to win a game."

The Bruins, who have long been overshadowed by crosstown rival Southern California and other West Coast programs in college baseball, will have to win two games in a row to win their first College World Series title.

"It was clearly their night from the get-go," Savage said. "They deserve to win the game. They dominated us in every phase, really. It's one game, and it's the best two out of three. We have bounced back all season, and this is a team that's been very resilient. We'll get back after it tomorrow."

If not, the Bruins will watch a different USC team celebrating Rosenblatt Stadium's final curtain call.

Mark Schlabach covers college sports for ESPN.com. You can contact him at schlabachma@yahoo.com.

Mark Schlabach | email

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