One Win Away

Blake Cooper came out firing in his last start in a South Carolina uniform, propelling the Gamecocks (53-16) to a 7-1 win over Gerrit Cole and the UCLA Bruins (51-16). The win puts USC just one victory away from its first baseball national title. Shortstop Bobby Haney added three RBI to help pace the Gamecock attack as Cooper tossed eight dominant innings.

After fifty-three hard fought victories on the diamond, the Gamecocks need just one more to capture the program's first national championship.

Blake Cooper was nearly unhittable in his second straight start on three days rest, troubling the UCLA batters to the tune of just three hits over eight innings, and John Taylor got a big double play in the ninth to help close the door on the Bruins.

"This guy sitting to my left (Cooper) just gave us an outstanding performance," said Ray Tanner following the win. "Just made pitch after pitch, and we hung in there and kept scoring a few more runs."

Cooper didn't give up his first hit until the fifth inning as he continued to put up zero after zero against the UCLA hitters. He would finish with eight innings pitched after departing with the bases loaded in the ninth, but would go on to pick up his thirteenth victory of the year.

But his last time on the mound in Omaha was perhaps the best start of his career, as he struck out ten batters and walked just one, while giving up one earned run on the evening.

"Cooper realized the maturity he has, he realized early on that he didn't have the giddy-up he needed on his fastball," said Tanner. "And he needed his changeup, slider, curveball, the two-seamer was sinking, got some ground balls. He just tried to pitch. And he was outstanding."

"I felt fine warming up today," said Cooper. "And I really wanted to rely on the sink and being able to throw curveballs and sliders and strikes, and I was able to do that early in the count, get some ground balls out and get some big strikeouts when I needed them."

Facing UCLA's Gerrit Cole to start the game, USC quickly showed it was up to the challenge against the outstanding Bruin right-hander. Cole came into the game with an astonishing one hundred fifty-one strike outs in one hundred sixteen innings and an 11-3 record for the year.

But there would be no show of dominance from him tonight, with the Gamecocks scoring in each of the first three innings and totaling six runs off Cole for the evening. Despite his high strikeout numbers coming in, Cole did not register a strikeout against USC until the sixth, when he recorded his only two K's of the night.

"Just a tremendous night for us," added Tanner in describing his offense. "I thought our guys did a tremendous job against Cole. And I just can't say enough good things about our effort. We had a tremendous game tonight against one of the best pitchers in the country."

All nine starters for South Carolina would go on to record a hit on the evening.

After Cole retired the first two batters of the game, Jackie Bradley Jr. tapped a bunt single down the third base line for the first hit of the day. That hit also extended Bradley Jr.'s hitting streak once again, this time running the total to twenty-two games.

Christian Walker followed that up with a bloop single into center field, and Brady Thomas knocked a single into shallow left field as he tried to hold up his swing, but it was good for an RBI single and the first run of the day. Adrian Morales got another run across when his ground ball to second base went under the glove of Cody Regis for the quick 2-0 lead.

Regis, who played third base for most of the season, has been forced to move to second due to Tyler Rahmatulla's broken wrist he suffered in the Super Regional victory celebration. The Gamecocks made him pay after scoring the early run thanks to his error.

After breaking through against Cole in the first, the USC offense would continue to trouble the righty over the course of his outing.

"It obviously feels good to get a couple runs in the beginning of the game," said USC shortstop Bobby Haney. "Obviously off a great pitcher, (it) boosted our confidence a lot. And we just went from there and Coop led the way."

Cole would also be unable to recover from the early deficit because Cooper soon began his assault on the UCLA batters, striking out Niko Gallego and Blair Dunlap in a scoreless first.

However, that was simply the beginning of the scoreless innings the Bruins would see pop up one after the other on the Omaha scoreboard.

Despite no hits in the first four innings, UCLA was able to acquire several baserunners, two of them thanks to a couple of big errors from Scott Wingo. But Blake Cooper worked around the baserunners in both the first and third innings to keep the pressure on and keep the Bruins off the scoreboard.

As for Wingo's shaky defense during the last Clemson contest and tonight, it was the encouragement of his teammates that allowed him to pick himself up and have a solid night at the plate.

"I told him to shake it off and relax and just play his game," said Haney. "And he picked up with the bat in the other end for us and Coop picked us up, too. So it was good from there."

In the second, South Carolina added a run after the aforementioned Scott Wingo tripled past a diving Jeff Gelalich in left field and scored on Evan Marzilli's single.

Two more in the third would put things out of reach for UCLA and set the tone for Cooper's continued mastery of his Pac-10 opposition.

After Christian Walker was thrown out at home following a Kyle Enders fly out, it looked like USC may waste a big bases loaded and no one out situation, but Bobby Haney came through with a two out RBI single to push the lead to 5-0.

Cooper gave up a single to Steve Rodriguez in the fifth inning, ending his bid for a no-hitter, but inspiring the pitcher to put the clamps on the Burins over the next few innings.

Following the base hit, Cooper began a streak of eleven straight batters retired before a leadoff single in the ninth.

Haney chased in another run with a sacrifice fly to score Morales in the fifth, and USC completed their day at the plate with a Whit Merrifield RBI single in the eighth.

Even with the strong and consistent offense, the night belonged to South Carolina's senior right-hander, who struck out ten batters for the third time this season and the third time in his career. Cooper set a career high earlier in the postseason with twelve against the Citadel in a regional win.

In the ninth, UCLA loaded the bases with nobody out as Cooper gave up a single to Cody Regis to lead it off and hit Blair Dunlap to draw a visit from pitching coach Mark Calvi.

Gelalich followed that up with a bloop single between Wingo and Merrifield in right field, chasing Cooper from the game and bringing on John Taylor in relief.

Taylor came through with two huge outs of his own, getting a double play off the bat of Dean Espy that scored a run, but put the momentum squarely back in the Carolina dugout. Taylor got Justin Uribe to line out to right with a runner on third to end the game and put Carolina in control of the best-of-three series.

UCLA will most likely go with left-handed Rob Rasmussen to start tomorrow's game. The lefty is 11-3 on the season, but lost his last start in the CWS, a 6-2 defeat against TCU.

With the quality of pitching throughout UCLA's starters, Haney said that consistency at the plate should help the Gamecocks come through against the tough opposition.

"Yeah they've got a great staff," noted Haney. "And we'll be ready tomorrow, swing the bats again, and just gotta take the same approach like it's another game and see what happens."

For Tanner and the Gamecocks, it's now just down to one game. A win and they'll etch themselves into Gamecock lore as the first and only championship baseball team in South Carolina history.

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