Don't Doubt Cooper

Don't ever doubt Blake Cooper. The Gamecocks' senior pitcher -- and Friday night starter -- who has played the role of the underdog all season long proved again Monday why he should never be counted out, and in the process further etched his name into Gamecock lore.

Omaha, Neb. -- Don't ever doubt Blake Cooper.

The Gamecocks' senior pitcher -- and Friday night starter -- who has played the role of the underdog all season long proved again Monday why he should never be counted out, and in the process further etched his name into Gamecock lore as one of the program's all-time best.

Cooper has faced long odds all season long -- pitching against top SEC arms like Ole Miss's Drew Pomeranz and Arkansas's Drew Smyly -- but perhaps none were longer than those presented to him in Game One of the College World Series Finals.

Working on just three days' rest for the second straight time in the 2010 College World Series -- in what will prove to be his final start in a Gamecock uniform -- the senior from Neeses, S.C. was masterful.

"He was outstanding," head coach Ray Tanner said.

Again the 5-foot-10, 180-pound Cooper faced a pitcher credited with having more talent and especially more pro potential. And again, Cooper was the one left standing.

And he did it in typical Cooper fashion -- and then some.

Presented with the task of facing a UCLA lineup deemed by many as the hottest in Omaha, Cooper carved up the Bruins with beautifully placed off-speed pitches and a fastball just hard enough to get the job done.

Never a fireballer in the first place -- not like his opposition, former first rounder Gerrit Cole –- Cooper had to dig deeper than ever as his third start in eight days took its toll on his velocity.

"I could tell I wasn't going to have enough giddy up on my fastball," Cooper said. "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 ground balls out and get some big strikeouts when I needed them."

Nearly perfect into the fifth inning, a blooper off the bat of Steve Rodriguez that fell into right field broke up his no-hitter.

He wouldn't give up another hit until the ninth.

"He mixed it up well tonight, kept us off balance," Rodriguez said. "And we didn't make enough adjustments at the plate, obviously, with only three hits."

After a walk and a third hit to load the bases in the ninth, Cooper gave way to John Taylor, who induced a double play and a fly out to right field, preserving Cooper's win. The run that scored on the double play and tacked onto Cooper's line took nothing away from what may have been the gutsiest pitching effort in Gamecock history.

136 pitches. Three hits. One run. 10 Strikeouts. And the biggest win of his career, placing the Gamecocks one win away from the program's first national title.

"I thought Blake Cooper was outstanding, off three days' rest," UCLA head coach John Savage. "Gotta give him a ton of credit. He pounded the strike zone. Threw his change and breaking ball for strikes. And really kept us off balance all evening."

Cooper kept opposing teams off balance all season long. As the Gamecocks' ace, and a model of consistency, Cooper went up against the SEC's best every Friday yet still compiled a 12-1 record and a 2.81 ERA. He also never gave up more than four earned runs in a single game.

On a team void of any real superstars, and a team that prided itself on its blue collar work ethic, Cooper embodied that very spirit.

As good as he was during the season, he was even better in his final games as a Gamecock. He has a 3-1 record with a 2.18 ERA in five NCAA Tournament starts, fanning 38 over 33 innings of work.

In Omaha, he is 1-1 with a 2.41 ERA in three starts, allowing 13 hits over 18.2 innings of work.

Cooper's loss in Omaha came in Game One of the World Series against Oklahoma. The game was delayed in the fifth due to the weather, ending Cooper's outing after just 67 pitches. A negative at the time for the Gamecocks may have been a blessing in disguise.

The Gamecocks' hurler came back on just three days' rest against Oklahoma and gave the Gamecocks a chance to win on 97 pitches, though he wasn't in line for the win.

While even Ray Tanner questioned whether Cooper should pitch on three days' rest again, his veteran pitcher would have none of simply waiting until tomorrow.

"I'll be as good today as I'll be tomorrow," Cooper told Tanner at the team hotel.

And he was better than good.

Without his best stuff, facing a tough lineup, on three days' rest, opposite one of the country's best pitchers, Cooper put together the best outing of his Gamecock career.

"He's had so many good ones,[but] I would probably have to say this is his best one just based on the stage we're on right now," Tanner said. "He was on short rest, his third time this tournament. I can't say enough about his performance. I'm not surprised, because that's who Blake Cooper is. I'm ecstatic for him."

It may have taken some fans a while to learn just who Cooper is. While he has pitched for the Gamecocks since he was a freshman, he has carved his spot into Gamecock history one opposing lineup at a time during his final campaign.

"He's had Kip Bouknight-type year for me," Tanner said. "Kip was a Golden Spikes winner with 17 wins in one year, and Blake Cooper has been just like that. Two of the best years of any pitchers that I've coached."

The win -- Cooper's 13th of the season and 34th of his career -- ties him at fourth on the all-time list at South Carolina. He'll have a great shot at earning the tournament's Most Outstanding Player award should the Gamecocks win one of the next two games. And he's been one of the main catalysts -- and the rock in the middle -- of what may prove to be the best run in Gamecock baseball history.

Still, Cooper says he wants to be remembered for something much simpler: "Just always giving my team a chance to win," he says.

But Cooper will likely be remembered as so much more.

He will always be remembered as the guy who never got quite enough credit before the game.

And as the guy who more often than not left his team on the winning side afterward.

Looking back on his career, no one will doubt Blake Cooper.

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