"They're not booing. They're Coop-in."
Every athlete wants to end his career on a high note.
Few have ended with a flourish like Blake Cooper did.
On the biggest stage for a college baseball pitcher, the senior right-hander dominated hitters in a ten-strikeout effort in Game 1 of the College World Series to give South Carolina a 7-1 win against UCLA.
"This guy gave us an outstanding performance," said South Carolina head coach Ray Tanner. "He just made pitch after pitch after pitch."
Working on three days rest, Cooper lacked the "giddy-up" on his fastball and relied on sliders and curveballs to limit the Bruins to three hits over eight-plus innings of work.
"I really wanted to rely on the sink and being able to throw curveballs and sliders for strikes," said Cooper. "I was able to do that early in the count, get some ground balls and get some big strikeouts when I needed them."
Cooper threw 136 pitches and faced the minimum in the second, sixth, seventh and eighth innings. After Steve Rodriguez' single in the fifth inning (the Bruins' first hit of the night), Cooper retired eleven straight batters.
"He mixed it up well tonight and kept us off balance," said UCLA head coach John Savage. "He pounded the strike zone and threw his change and breaking ball for strikes."
Tanner said he knew the right-hander would at least put the Gamecocks in position to win the opening game of the championship series.
"I felt comfortable he was going to get us to the middle of that game regardless of what kind of stuff he had," he said.
To Tanner, Cooper was "extra-special" tonight.
"Coop maxes out his ability. If you play a little defense behind him, he always keeps you there," he said. "He ran a couple balls, fastballs that didn't have a lot of velocity that just ran in and out of that zone. He was just really good."
In a scenario Cooper has seen many times this season, the starter for the opponent was another highly regarded pitcher. UCLA starter Gerrit Cole, a former first-round draft pick, struck out 13 batters last Monday in his first start in the College World Series.
But that's been the story all year for Cooper. He's made it a habit of out-dueling the other team's top guy. Drew Pomeranz from Ole Miss. Drew Smyly from Arkansas. And now Cole from UCLA. Does that give him extra motivation?
"I really don't think so. I just want to do what I've been doing all year and go out and give my team a chance to win," he said.
Ironically, it almost wasn't the senior righty standing on the hill at the start of the game. Tanner met with Cooper in the morning and asked if he wanted to push his start back to Tuesday for an extra day of rest.
"He just looked at me for a few minutes and said, 'I'll be as good today as I'll be tomorrow,'" said Tanner. "I said, 'It's another day's rest." And he said, 'It ain't going to matter to me.'"
At the end of last season, Cooper committed to his fitness to make a difference in his senior season. Working with strength coach Billy Anderson, Cooper applied himself in the weight room.
"Last year, I knew I was a little bit overweight and I knew I had to do something about it to have a chance to have a year like I did this year," said Cooper. "I feel like it's been a great key to my success this year and being to last as long as I did and maintain my velocity and composure on the mound."
In his final start as a Gamecock, Cooper earned career win No. 34 - good for 4th on South Carolina's all-time list and tying him with Earl Bass and Greg Ward.
"I finally got my last start tonight and it was a big one for me," he said.