Cooper settles in as USC secures series sweep

South Carolina starting pitcher Blake Cooper proved it's not how you start, but how you finish as a rocky beginning turned into a solid outing on Sunday. The right hander tossed a complete game, allowing three runs on 12 hits as Carolina picked up an 11-3 win and swept the three-game series with Vanderbilt.

Things could not have started off worse for South Carolina starting pitcher Blake Cooper. Two singles and an error at second base in the first inning led to Vanderbilt claiming a 1-0 lead. Cooper then started the second inning off by hitting back-to-back batters in Brian Harris and Jason Esposito.

That prompted USC pitching coach Mark Calvi to trot out to the mound for a quick chat with Cooper before the next batter dug in. The pep talk worked to say the least as Cooper went on to pitch six straight scoreless innings and retire 11 straight batters in a row as he picked up the win and the Gamecocks earned an 11-3 victory to sweep the series with Vanderbilt (27-20, 10-13 SEC).

"He just told me to compete, stop trying to pick corners, pick corners and most of the time when I'm struggling I'm trying to pick. If I just throw for strikes I'm fine," Cooper said. "I've always had a problem in the first inning learning how to get my pitches together and be able to throw for strikes. Early in this game I was doing the same thing, I was struggling a little bit in the first couple innings."

After a disastrous outing against Florida, Cooper's woes looked like they might carry over into Sunday's start as five of the first seven batters he faced reached base. The Edisto native lasted just one inning in Gainesville, giving up six earned runs on five hits. After the slow start, Cooper (6-4) struck out the next two batters he faced and retired 15 of the next 17 hitters that stepped in.

Quite a performance from a pitcher who almost started the day in the bullpen rather than on the hill.

"We really wrestled with the decision today to go with Blake Cooper or Adam Westmoreland because of their left handed power. We thought maybe Westmoreland could neutralize them," USC coach Ray Tanner said. "We were, I think, here past midnight trying to make a decision and we decided to go with the veteran and normally Cooper has a good one after a bad one. And he had a bad one at Florida and he came up big for us today."

For the third game in a row, Carolina (30-18, 12-12 SEC) found itself in a 1-0 hole after the first inning. Though the rally didn't come as quickly this time around, the Gamecocks (30-18, 12-12 SEC) did put the answers up on the board in the third inning. A leadoff walk to DeAngelo Mack turned into the tying run as Jackie Bradley, Jr. hit a run scoring double to tie things up. First baseman Nick Ebert put the Gamecocks ahead for good during the next at-bat as he lined a two-run homer to left that hugged the line and gave Carolina a 3-1 lead as starter Caleb Cotham (5-5) was chased from the game.

In the fourth inning things got a little dicey on the field as shortstop Bobby Haney watched home plate umpire Todd Henderson call strike one on a ball well outside. After he grounded out to second, third base coach Chad Holbrook and Vanderbilt assistant coach Erik Bakich got into a war of words and had to be separated by the umpires and head coaches from both schools.

"Unfortunately I missed the bulk of what transpired. I had gone down into the lineup chart and I was looking at personnel and their guys on the bench and their pitchers and our bullpen, and the next thing I know there's a brouhaha going on and I'm like ‘How'd I miss anything?' But I did," Tanner said. "Apparently coach Holbrook and Bakich exchanged some words and he left his position in the dugout and came out. The umpires said to the head coaches ‘How about keeping that in check?'"

That incident was followed by Scott Wingo's hard shot down the line at first that hit the first baseman in the chest and was booted into foul territory for a single as Wingo and relief pitcher Sonny Gray got tangled up on the play at the bag. After a fielder's choice groundout by Whit Merrifield, Mack added his first RBI of the day with a double to make it 4-1.

The Gamecocks began putting things away with a two-out rally in the sixth inning as Merrifield hit a run scoring single to make it 5-1 and was followed by Mack's two-run homer to make it 7-1. The red hot hitting carried over in the seventh inning for Carolina as two doubles and a single scored one run and put two on for pinch hitter Parker Bangs. His only appearance at the plate proved to be a big one as he pushed a ball just over the right field fence for a three-run shot to make it 11-1.

"Vandy threw good arms all weekend," Ebert said. "That's just the kind of ball club we are. I know we can swing it like that every game we come out and play."

On the weekend, the Carolina lineup combined for 33 runs, 42 hits and 10 home runs in the three game series as an offense. The pitching staff also performed well with each starter going more than seven innings and tossing over 110 pitches. It's the first time the starting rotation has done that since the Auburn series.

With the sweep, USC remains in the No. 7 spot in the overall SEC standings with a chance to move above .500 for the first time this season when they travel to the Eastern Division's bottom team Tennessee next weekend.

"Getting back to .500 this weekend is big for us but we're not going to stop there by any means," Ebert said. "We want to get over that .500 hump and just keep playing ball and not worry about the standings. Everything will work out. Numbers will work out and you've just got to care of business on the field."


NOTES:

- Andrew Crisp is now tied for 7th all time on the USC career hit list with Justin Smoak at 246.

- The SEC series sweep is the first time Carolina has swept a conference series since the Auburn series last season.

- Jackie Bradley, Jr. finished the weekend as USC's top hitter going 9-for-14 with five runs and four RBI. He had three hits in each game.

- Parker Bangs tied a career high with three RBI on his home run.

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