OMAHA, Neb. — Blake Cooper has done all he can to put South Carolina in position for its first national championship in baseball.
Now it’s up to his teammates to take it the rest of the way.
“I finally got my last start tonight,” the senior right-hander said, “and it was a big one for me.”
Pitching on three days’ rest for the second straight time at the College World Series, Cooper allowed three hits in eight-plus innings and Bobby Haney drove in a career-high three runs, moving the Gamecocks within a win of the title with a 7-1 victory over UCLA on Monday night.
“I certainly wanted to pitch him today,” Gamecocks coach Ray Tanner said. “But I encouraged him to take another day, if he felt that it would be in his best interests.”
Cooper shook his coach off.
“I really didn’t think another day was going to matter at this point,” he said.
Cooper struck out 10 and carried a one-hitter into the ninth before running into trouble. South Carolina fans cheered a drawn-out “COOOOOP” as he left after 136 pitches and the bases loaded with no outs in the ninth. Reliever John Taylor finished, but not before the Bruins broke up the shutout when Cody Regis scored on a double-play grounder.
“I just wanted to do what I’ve been doing all year, go out and give my team a chance to win,” Cooper said. “And I was able to do that today and do a little extra.”
The Gamecocks (53-16) and Bruins (51-16) play Game 2 of the best-of-three finals on Tuesday night.
UCLA coach John Savage said he probably would start Rob Rasmussen (11-3), who was knocked around for three runs on six hits in 4 1-3 innings against TCU on Friday. Tanner didn’t name a starter but said he probably would go with a left-hander, making Tyler Webb (3-2) the likely candidate. Seven of Webb’s 16 appearances this season have been starts, with his longest lasting 5 2-3 innings.
Cooper’s fastball hit 87 mph, but typically was in the low 80s. Still, he was able to keep the Bruins in check with his sinker.
The first hit against Cooper came with one out in the fifth, when No. 9 batter Steve Rodriguez dropped a single down the right-field line. Cooper (13-2) retired the next 11 batters before Regis led off the ninth with a single to right. Cooper walked Marc Navarro and Jeff Gelalich singled to chase the Gamecocks’ starter.
“I could tell I wasn’t going to have enough giddy-up on my fastball, like Coach Tanner said,” Cooper said. “I really wanted to rely on the sinker and being able to throw curveballs and sliders and strikes, and I was able to do that early in the count, get some groundball outs and strikeouts when I needed them.”
South Carolina collected 11 of their 14 hits and six runs, four earned, in seven innings against UCLA starter Gerrit Cole (11-4). Cole had struck out 13 in eight innings in a win over TCU in his previous start, but he fanned only two Gamecocks.
“They had a great approach,” Cole said. “I don’t know what the approach was. Whatever it was, it worked. They constantly worked counts, fouled balls off. A night like tonight with a line like this, sometimes you have got to kind of beat yourself up about it, but they did a great job.”
Cole was victimized by two errors and bad luck.
“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. I thought their hitters did a terrific job off of Gerrit of touching the ball. And they got rewarded.”
In the first inning, Jackie Bradley Jr. extended his hitting streak to 22 games with a bunt single. Christian Walker followed with a bloop single before Brady Thomas drove in a run with a check-swing single.
Adrian Morales grounded to second, but Regis lifted his glove too soon and the ball went through his legs, allowing Walker to score for a 2-0 lead.
After Scott Wingo tripled and scored in the second inning, the Gamecocks added two more runs in the third. Walker reached when first baseman Justin Uribe got a late break on an infield nubber that was scored a hit. Morales reached on an error when Cole couldn’t come up with his bunt. Haney followed with a two-run single, and his sacrifice fly in the fifth made it 6-0.
“They threw a couple of good punches, and we didn’t feel like it was going to steamroll if we put a few quality at-bats together,” Rodriguez said. “We figured if we put in a few more quality at-bats we’d be right in the game. And Cooper was on his game tonight, and he didn’t allow us to do that.”
Cooper had also been solid in two previous CWS appearances. He allowed three runs on six hits and a walk over five innings in a 4-3 loss to Oklahoma. His outing ended after 67 pitches when the game went into a rain delay.
He came back last Thursday to allow one run on four hits in 5 2-3 innings in a rematch with the Sooners, but got a no-decision in a 3-2, 12-inning victory. He threw 97 pitches that night.
“I think that has helped him a little bit,” Tanner said, “the fact that he didn’t run too many pitches out there in the opener.”
Savage didn’t want to think about how good Cooper might have been if he had been fresh.
“They dominated us in every phase, really,” Savage said. “So it’s one game. And it’s the best two out of three and we have bounced back all season, and this team is very resilient. We’ll get back after it tomorrow. But tonight they had our number, and you have got to give them a ton of credit.”
Eric Olson/The Associated Press