That’s where South Carolina baseball team finds itself in its pursuit of the program’s first national championship. With a 7-1 victory over UCLA Monday night, the Gamecocks need only one more win in the best-of-three series to reach the pinnacle of college baseball.
Senior right-hander Blake Cooper led the way one more time as he threw eight masterful innings to win the College World Series championship opener. The Gamecocks (53-16) will play the Bruins (51-16) at 7:30 tonight in what could be the final CWS game ever at Rosenblatt Stadium.
In the first-ever meeting between the two teams, the Gamecocks put themselves in the driver’s seat early by scoring in each of the first three innings. And with the win, they are on the verge of doing what they couldn’t quite do in three previous NCAA title appearances in 1975, 1977, and 2002.
But USC coach Ray Tanner isn’t going to let his players get too far ahead of themselves by dwelling too much on the opportunity.
“We're not thinking about that, really. That's too much to think about,” Tanner said. “I just told the guys we're going to do the things we've done all year. It's just another game for us tomorrow. We'll try to put it together and try to win a game. And that's really going to be the focus.”
Junior outfielder Whit Merrifield said the focus is simply on winning the next game in front of them.
“You want to win when you have to. We’ve said in the locker room we’ve won one game 52 times or something like that this year,” Merrifield said. “We’ve got our whole staff ready for (Tuesday), and I’m not sure who’s going to start, but whoever they are, hopefully they’ll give us a good outing and we can push some runs across again.”
Tanner wasn’t ready to name tonight’s starter, and UCLA coach John Savage said he was leaning toward left-hander Rob Rasmussen (11-3).
But it’s going to be hard for any pitcher to top Cooper (13-2), who was pitching for the third time in the CWS and the second time on three days rest. He completely handcuffed the Bruins, who had scored 29 runs in four CWS games entering the contest. He allowed just three singles while walking one, striking out 10 and lowering his ERA to 2.76. After allowing a fifth-inning single, he retired 11 batters in a row before giving up a ninth-inning leadoff single. John Taylor got the final three outs for the Gamecocks.
“Cooper realized with the maturity he has early on that he didn't have the giddy-up he needed on his fastball,” Tanner said. “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.”
The Gamecocks had their way with UCLA’s hard-throwing sophomore right-hander Gerrit Cole (11-4), who was pitching on a full week’s rest but couldn’t come close to matching Cooper’s effectiveness. Cole gave up six runs – four earned – on 11 hits in his seven innings of work. He labored while throwing 127 pitches and only struck out two, with both coming in the sixth inning, after starting the game with an eye-popping 151 strikeouts.
“We knew Cole was a good pitcher coming in, but like we’ve said time and time again, it’s nothing we haven’t seen. Playing in the SEC, we feel like we’ve seen it all,” Merrifield said. “We blooped a couple in, and he got a little rattled. We put some stuff together, and things were kind of falling our way tonight. What can you say about Coop? He just threw an unbelievable game. What a way to go out for him.”
Cole credited the Gamecocks for making something happen against him.
“Well, they had a great approach. I don't know what the approach was. But whatever it was, it worked,” Cole said. “They touched the ball with two strikes, constantly worked counts, fouled balls off. I jumped ahead of a lot of batters. Had a lot of guys 0-1, 1-2. And they touched the ball. They didn't chase the fastball up. They just did a very good job.”
Savage gave a salute to the guy on the mound for the Gamecocks.
“Blake Cooper was outstanding off three days rest. You’ve got to 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,” Savage said. “So it was clearly their night from the get-go. They deserved to win the game. They dominated us in every phase, really. So it's one game. And it's the best two out of three, and we have bounced back all season.”
Bobby Haney led the 14-hit attack with two hits and three RBIs, while Jackie Bradley, Christian Walker and Evan Marzilli also had two hits apiece. Every player in USC’s starting lineup had at least one hit, with Merrifield’s first hit of the game delivering the Gamecocks’ seventh run in the eighth.
Haney said the team didn’t relax after building a 5-0 lead in the first three innings.
“You don't really think about that too early in the game, ‘Oh, this is our night, we're going to win this game,’” Haney said. “You’ve just got to play what you know how to play, play hard, and hope the ball goes your way.”
USC pushed its lead to 5-0 in the third inning thanks to some help from the UCLA defense. Walker led off the inning with a chopper that first baseman Justin Uribe couldn’t field cleanly, although it went for a hit. After Brady Thomas walked, Cole made an error on a bunt attempt by Adrian Morales to load the bases.
Kyle Enders then lifted a fly ball to center, but center fielder Beau Amaral sailed the ball over the catcher’s head on his throw home. Walker, who had held up until the overthrow, was cut down at the plate when catcher Steve Rodriguez tossed it back to Cole for the out. But Haney salvaged the inning with a two-run, two-out single off Cole.
Haney delivered another run in the fifth inning on a sacrifice fly, which followed consecutive singles by Morales and Enders to put runners on the corners. Haney’s third RBI of the night upped South Carolina’s lead to 6-0.
“We got a great start tonight offensively. We pushed across some runs early,” Tanner said. “And they made a couple of mistakes. And we had a couple of hits stuck in there. We really didn't hit Cole that hard early, but we were able to get a couple balls to drop and scored some runs.”
Cooper, meanwhile, sailed through the first four innings without allowing a hit and striking out five. He did have to pitch around two hit batsmen and two errors by second baseman Scott Wingo. He didn’t allow his first hit until Rodriguez singled to right with one out in the fifth, but he got the next two batters to keep his shutout going.
South Carolina staged a two-out rally in the first inning that plated a pair of runs. Bradley got things going with a bunt single, and Walker followed by dropping a blooper into left-center field to put runners on the corners. A checked-swing by Thomas resulted in a ball dumped into left to score Bradley. Morales then hit a ground ball that went right through second baseman Cody Regis’ legs to give USC a 2-0 lead.
“We just got the momentum early, and that's what we needed in a game like this,” Walker said.
The Gamecocks added another run in the second when Wingo hit a one-out liner that eluded left-fielder Jeff Gelalich and rolled to the fence, which allowed Wingo to chug into third for a triple. Marzilli hit a sharp single to right push the lead to 3-0.
Game 1 highlights
Tanner on Game 1 victory, task ahead
Cooper, Haney and Walker Game 1 postgame comments