For a guy who looked as if he would not escape the second inning, Blake Cooper gave the USC baseball team the kind of Sunday performance that sweeps are made of.
The junior right-hander shut down Vanderbilt with a complete-game victory in an 11-3 win at Carolina Stadium.
After giving up a run in the first inning and hitting the first two batters of the second, Cooper (6-4) appeared to be headed toward an early seat on the bench as the bullpen began to stir.
But he retired the nest 11 batters, and he didn’t allow any more runs until the eighth — when the Commodores strung together four consecutive two-out hits. Cooper scattered 12 hits and walked none while striking out six.
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“I was struggling a little bit, but I just wanted to keep competing,” he said. “I had to bear down because if I didn’t, I was coming out soon. You can deal with hits but not walks and hit batsmen.”
Tanner, who thought about starting Adam Westmoreland instead, had the big freshman lefty warming up in the second as Cooper labored.
“We were going to make a move when he scuffled a little bit early. But he settled in and did a great job,” Tanner said.
The series sweep was the first of the season for USC (30-18, 12-12) in SEC play and solidified its lead over Vanderbilt (27-20, 10-13) for third in the Eastern Division. The Gamecocks travel to Spartanburg on Wednesday to play Wofford at King Field before heading to Knoxville to play Tennessee in a three-game series next weekend.
Cooper received more than enough support from the USC hitters, who banged out 16 hits, including homers from first baseman Nick Ebert and left-fielder DeAngelo Mack. The Gamecocks mashed the ball all weekend, scoring 33 runs on 42 hits, 10 of them home runs. Jackie Bradley had three hits in all three games.
“We just got our (butts) kicked,” Vanderbilt coach Tim Corbin said. “They swung the bats well. They don’t miss pitches. You can’t throw a fastball by them. They’ve got some strong kids. They just handed it to us three times.”
USC knocked out Vanderbilt starter Caleb Cotham in the third. Mack led off by working a seven-pitch walk and scored one pitch later on Bradley’s double into the left-center gap. Ebert followed with his 18th homer of the season — his third in the series — down the left-field line to give the Gamecocks a 3-1 lead.
“Vandy threw good arms at us all weekend,” said Ebert, who has a team-high 57 RBIs. “That’s just the kind of ball club we are. I know we can swing it like that. We can hit with the best of them.”
In the fourth inning, Mack drilled a two-out double into the right-field corner off hard-throwing reliever Sonny Gray to up the lead to 4-1.
The Commodores have been swept two of the past three weekends.
“This third game was the biggest of the weekend,” Ebert said. “We’ve got to carry it over to the last two weekends.”
USC added three more runs in the sixth off Gray on Whit Merrifield’s two-out, RBI single. Mack then ripped a two-run homer to make it 7-1. It was Mack’s 14th home run and upped his RBI total to 50 and team-high batting average to .377.
“Hitting is contagious. Whit sets the table, and it trickles down to Ebert,” Mack said.
Parker Bangs capped the USC scoring with a three-run homer in the seventh.
Cooper’s big game may get USC’s late-season run started.
“You’ve got to keep winning games,” Tanner said. “You’ve got to win enough to keep playing.”