When South Carolina won the College World Series for the first time in 2010, there were several heroes on the national championship team.
Michael Roth. Whit Merrifield. Scott Wingo. Christian Walker. MVP Jackie Bradley Jr.
But no one played a bigger role in 2010 than Friday night starter Blake Cooper.
A 5-10 senior from Neeses, S.C., Cooper had a phenomenal season, earning first-team All-SEC with a 13-2 record and 2.76 ERA over 20 starts and 137 innings pitched. His biggest start was his last one, when he allowed just three hits and had 10 strikeouts in eight innings in a 7-1 win over UCLA in Game 1 of the national championship series. The opposing pitcher that day? All-American Gerrit Cole.
Cooper, a third-team All-American, finished his career with a 34-14 record and 3.72 ERA in 62 starts and 377 innings. He was drafted in the 12th round by the Arizona Diamondbacks and pitched six years in the minor leagues, climbing to Triple-A before finishing his career with a 23-20 record and 3.05 ERA with 22 saves.
Now the pitching coach at the The Citadel, Cooper returned to Founders Park on March 10 and threw out the first pitch prior to what would be South Carolina’s final game of the season.
As we continue to celebrate the 10-year anniversary of the national championship season, Cooper spoke with Spurs & Feathers editor Jeff Owens about the 2010 team and the 2010 College World Series.
What was that moment like when you guys finally won the College World Series?
“It was a situation to where it was so many highs and lows through that world series just because we lost the first game. We were down in the third game against Oklahoma and I’m sitting there and I can remember being in that dugout thinking, ‘You know what, this could be it.’ Jackie [Bradly Jr.] is up and it’s a 3-2 count and this could be it, and he comes through with a hit. It was a situation where you are really high going into Omaha and you lose the first game. Now you are really low and you are trying to pick yourself back up, you win a big game against Arizona State and you go into Oklahoma and it goes to extra innings and you are one pitch away from being out of it. And then all of a sudden you get a hit and you are back in it. It was crazy the emotions that run through you during that run.”
What made that team so special?
“That was a team that was extremely resilient. For some reason, if you look at it now and you look at the talent that was on that team, you see it all through the minor leagues and professional baseball and the big leagues. You talk about guys like Sam Dyson, who has been in the big leagues for a while, Jackie Bradley, Whit Merrifield, Christian Walker. Not just major league players but they are making some noise at the major-league level. Whit has been the best hitter the last three years in the big leagues. We are on a team to where we are so grounded as baseball players, we always thought we were the underdog for some reason. But I think that was a job that coach Tanner did to keep us level-headed and keep us fighting and grinding. I think that was one thing he was really good at, making all his teams feel like they had a chip on their shoulder. For us, we were a group of guys who played well together, we loved each other, we worked hard but we held each other accountable, all the things I am trying to teach now as a coach. That really stuck out to me looking back at the guys on the team and the things we did and the reasons why things happened the way they did. That’s the reason that was a special team, because there was a bunch of leadership on that team and guys held each other accountable. When you are a coach, you talk about those things, but a team really takes off when those guys start holding each other accountable and it’s not just the coaches doing it themselves.”
Do you have a favorite moment from that season? Is there a moment that really sticks out for you?
“One of the plays I can remember as a pitcher was going into Coastal Carolina and I remember going over the scouting report with Coach [Mark] Calvi, which is one of the most unbelievable coaches there is as far as getting his players ready to play and the mentality and all that. We were going over the scouting report, and I think Coastal was undefeated in their conference that year but coaches kept saying they don’t play in the SEC. You have to really pitch to your potential, but obviously they haven’t faced who we faced all year. I can remember going through that scouting report, me and Adam Westmoreland stayed up that night and we kinda wrote our own scouting report and we went to Coach Calvi’s room and he looked over it and everything pretty much looked the same, just because of what I had done with him and I know how he thinks. Moving into Coastal, we were late in the game and it was a tie game and there was a ball hit up the middle off me and it was a ball that … goes up the middle and [second baseman] Scott Wingo dives over the bag. He’s laying on the bag and turns a double play and we get out of the inning. For me, that was the biggest play of the season. Obviously, there were a ton of them but that was the opening game and it kept us right there. I believe we were tied or up by one, but if he doesn’t make that play, they probably take the lead and who knows what happens after that. I played professional ball up to the Triple-A level and Scott Wingo was one of the best defenders I have ever played with.”
What was your approach and mindset going into your start in Game 1 of the championship series against UCLA?
“Coach Tanner did an unbelievable job of making all of us feel comfortable when we were on the field. He really practiced us hard at times, but when it was time to play a game, it was a playground for us and he let us go. For us, we always had fun, we kept our nose down and our eyes down and we competed. Going into that game, honestly, for us, it felt like just another game. I think that was kinda the personality of that team. I don’t know if it was a situation where the staff recruited that way or it was just our personality or it was a deal where every day we were just told to compete and do your best, work hard and everything will fall into place. He really let us play the game. But going into that game, I honestly kinda went off what I said … we kinda played every game and we tried to do what we could do best, control what we could control. We didn’t play the opponent. I remember Coach Calvi used to tell me all the time, and one thing I talk to my pitchers about, is you are pitching against yourself, you are not pitching against the other pitcher or the other team. So if you can control those emotions and you can control what you can control and you can really pitch to your ability, you are going to be fine. If you have a plan and you execute what you can do, you are going to be fine. For that game, looking at it now, I can see the magnitude of it, but we were so incapsulated in the moment, we really didn’t feel that during that time.”
Did you realize you were pitching against one of the best pitchers in the country in Gerrit Cole?
“I didn’t know who Gerrit Cole was at the time, and that is the honest truth. I had no idea about their team or their pitching staff.”
Looking back on it now, do you take great pride in the fact that you beat a guy who is now one of the best pitchers in the major leagues?
“There are people who crack jokes and make memes and all those things, but it was a situation where I honestly didn’t realize who he was until he got to the big leagues. Obviously I saw he was drafted high and all those things, but going into that game, we are playing a west coast offense, a team that when they get on the base paths, they are going to bunt, they are going to try to steal, they are going to hit-and-run, they are going to do all those things, and honestly, my thought process against teams was their approach, not actually their personnel. For me, I was playing the 1-2-3-4 guys and the 7-8-9 guys. I was going to pitch to those positions in that batting order as far as whether I can pitch inside, do I need to spin it more, do I need to pitch behind in the count with off-speed pitches, just depending on their position in the lineup. … One thing that Coach Calvi and coach Tanner really taught us was, play the game, not the opponent.”
You were 13-2 that year, but was that your best start of the season?
“I would say it probably was, just because … I was pretty much burned out. I had pitched 19 or 20 innings in seven days. I started game one and then game three and then game one of the championship game. For me, I can remember going out and … usually I was a guy who liked to long toss and stretch it out before the game and I like to go out on the field an hour before and take in the atmosphere and try to get acclimated to my surroundings and kinda calm my nerves and be in the moment a little bit. In that game, I can remember leading up to it and I was in the training room twice a day getting a massage, trying to get the soreness out and all those things.
Going into that game, I didn’t have my best stuff. I knew it whenever I started tossing. I kinda felt fatigued and I could remember Coach Calvi coming up to me and I was out to be about 120 feet and he looked at me and said, ‘Hey, what’s going on?’ And I said, ‘Well, I don’t really feel the best.’ And he said, ’It doesn’t matter how you feel, it only matters how you perform.’ He said the great ones produce when they are not at their best. That was a situation where I knew I wasn’t going to rear back unless I had to. I pitched mostly 85-86-87, and then when I got two strikes or I was behind in the count and I wanted to throw a fastball, I could jump it up to around 90. I pitched backward a ton, and they were a team that didn’t adjust to it. From inning one, it was breaking ball, breaking ball, breaking ball. For me, that was my bread and butter in college and it really played into what I did all year.”
What was your basic pitching philosophy then and how much of that do you pass along to your pitchers now?
“When I was in high school, I went to a small AA high school and I had a good arm. I was 88-90 and touched 92 and had some sink and could probably throw a breaking ball with my eyes closed. I asked Coach Calvi, ‘Why did you recruit a 5-10 kid from Neeses, S.C. and a AA high school that threw 88 mph? And he said, ‘You had really good fastball command and you can throw your breaking ball with your eyes closed.’ That was a situation where when I got to school, there were probably 25 guys on the pitching staff and I sat there looking like, how in the world am I going to make this team? For me, my craft really started as a senior. I was a guy who could run it up to 90-92, but my off-speed pitches was the thing that was really my comfort zone for me. If it was 1-0, 2-1, 3-2, I could really throw breaking balls for strikes. When you pitch in the SEC, those guys are really geared to hit fastballs. It was a situation where I was 5-10, didn’t have a lot of downward plane, so I had to pitch off my off-speed a lot in college. Once I got to pro ball, it was obviously shorter stints so I could throw more fastballs and I actually got more sink and a changeup when I got to pro ball. But for college, I really learned to pitch backward and control the counts. It was almost better for me when I got behind in counts, because I could get easy outs with off-speed pitches.
“As far as trying to teach that to our guys, it has a lot to do with who the person is. I’m not going to make our entire staff that way, but if it’s a guy who has an average fastball but has a really good breaking ball, you probably need to use that breaking ball a little more, especially in counts where guys are swinging. You have to know the count and know the hitter and just play the game and things like that work out. For me, that’s kinda who I was and really worked on it all the time.”
You pitched in the minor leagues and had a pretty good career. What was your professional experience like?
“It was a little different coming from college and going straight to the bullpen. For me, at first it was tough just because I was trying to figure out my routine and all those things. But it was a situation where I could really go out and turn it loose instead of trying to pace myself throughout a game. SEC baseball is probably comparable to Double-A baseball. The lower-level guys are really taking hacks and it doesn’t matter the pitch, but once you get to Double-A, it kinda gets you back to SEC ball where if you throw a little breaking ball, a lot of times they will take it. … I definitely feel like the SEC really trained me for at least Double-A ball.
“Once I got to Triple-A it was a little different. You look up and there are seven to nine guys who have either been in the big leagues or are getting ready to be in the big leagues, so that’s a different scenario. I had success there, but for me, it was about going back to school and finishing and starting a family and I really wanted to coach, so that was the decision I made. I had a lot of success but I didn’t really think that going up and down the minor leagues and big leagues was something I wanted to do.”
You came back to South Carolina as a student assistant coach in 2016. Did that kind of give you a taste for wanting to coach at the collegiate level?
“At the university, they give you an opportunity to come back and they will pay for your school if you work within the athletic department. For me, I chose to work with the baseball team because I wanted to coach. In pro ball, I did a ton of pitching lessons in the offseason from like 2011 to probably 2015 and I started gaining an interest in seeing kids’ development and understanding their happiness and things they got excited about when they started to move forward and progress. That was one of the things I started to fall in love with, seeing the excitement on kids’ face when they started progressing and getting better. I started getting some interest in it and I got toward the end of the road [in professional baseball] and had to make a decision on whether I was going to continue to play or move forward, and I had to get my degree still, I had two semesters left to finish school. So that’s why I did what I did. And I’m glad I did it because obviously coach [Fred] Jordan retired at The Citadel, they hired Tony Skole and once again it was just right place, right time. Every decision you make in life is going to really lead you one way or the other. I have been fortunate to make two right decisions there.”
Before the season was canceled, The Citadel played at Founders Park and you got to throw out the first pitch before the game. How special was that for you?
“It was definitely a special moment. You get to go back to the place where so many memories were made. Obviously I met my wife there, I got my degree from there. The university has given me so much. There have been a lot of things that happened on that field that brought joy and there has been a lot of things that happened on that field that kinda put you in a direction to really want to work harder. I can remember my first three years, I was just OK. I was really good out of the gate as a freshman and then I just sort of settled in and I was just OK with a 4.00 ERA and stuff. Moving into my senior year, I really worked hard that summer and Coach Calvi was there with me and I just had a chip on my shoulder and it was my last go-around and I was ready to make a point and prove to myself and everybody else that I could really make a jump.
“A lot of memories in that stadium. I used to run that stadium every day through those bleachers. I spent a ton of time there and had a lot of good memories and won a lot of games and my entire college career was right there and that’s where I shared a ton of memories with my teammates. It felt really good to go back and still hear the chants from the crowd and people still remember who you are and you get to be around some of the people you haven’t seen in a while and the coaching staff and fans I hadn’t seen in probably 10 years. It was a really good feeling because there were a lot of surreal moments that happened right there on that turf. It’s all about the relationships, especially in the coaching industry, and just going back there, I had my two kids on the field and my wife and my family as well. It was a real special moment and I look forward to going back again next year.”