Blake Cooper is staying plenty busy as a minor league pitcher, just not in the role he may have expected when drafted last year by the Arizona Diamondbacks.
The former Gamecock (2007-10) is a closer for the Class A South Bend (Ind.) Silver Hawks, a year after thriving as South Carolina's Friday night starter.
Cooper last season was 13-2. The all-SEC first-teamer pitched three times in the College World Series, striking out 10 in a 7-1 USC victory over UCLA in game one of the national championship.
This year he is 0-1, has a 3.55 ERA in 10 appearances and leads South Bend with five saves. Cooper shares closing duties with former Oklahoma pitcher Jeremy Erben (1-1, three saves).
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Cooper was chosen by the Diamondbacks in the 12th round of last year's MLB Draft. After the CWS run, Cooper was a part of Arizona's Pioneer League team in Missoula, Mont., before landing in South Bend this season.
Cooper is fourth all-time on USC's career wins list with 34. His 20 starts in 2010 is a South Carolina single-season record.
How has the transition to professional baseball gone?
I'm pitching pretty well. The transition for me from being a starter to going to the bullpen is mental. As a starter you really want to go out there and conserve yourself for six to eight innings, a complete game if you're lucky enough. For me now, I can really go out there and give it my all and work on my sinker. I've been told that I have a pro sinker and I need to use it.
In college, with the aluminum bats, you want to throw a lot of breaking balls. I really didn't use fastballs as much as I use now. You really have to pitch off your fastball in pro ball because of the wood bats.
Your first two outings this season were a little rough (a loss, three earned runs in two games). How did you handle that?
It was tough for me because in college last year, I really pitched well. Pro ball is about making adjustments and I was able to do that. I just have to stay strong mentally and have confidence in myself. That's what has got me this far. I've always believed in my stuff. So far I'm able to keep the ball down and get ground balls.
How exactly did you become a closer?
Last year in Missoula I went out for a month or so, and I threw so many innings in college. They didn't really want me throwing much. I kind of had the impression I might be a starter, but they didn't really know yet. I got to spring training and found out I was going to be a reliever.
That was fine for me because I just want to pitch. I'm really starting to learn the process of being a reliever. My last few outings have been good, and I want to keep it there.
Are you adjusting to the minor league lifestyle, including usually having games seven days a week?
In college we play four or five times a week. Now we play every day. I could pitch on any given day, but I usually know whether I'm going to pitch or not. It's just a grind. The hardest challenge is to stay mentally focused and bring it to the field every day. I've been successful with what I did in college. I've just got to bring it to pro ball.
The minor leagues is everything I expected it to be. I knew we'd be on the road any given week. It's fun. We play in some nice ballparks. The Midwest League early on was really cold and windy and rainy, but it's starting the clear up now. The weather's becoming nice, so only good things are coming.
What are your pro baseball goals - move up one level each season?
That's a typical goal for a minor-leaguer. It's not really in your hands. All you can do is pitch and play as well as you can play.
For me for this year, it was to make a long-season club. I was able to do that. I pitched well enough in spring training to get here.
Do you get to experience Indiana at all, or are you playing all the time?
Not really. We play every day. I'd like to go to a couple Notre Dame football games, but I don't know if I'll have the chance. Maybe at the end of the season I'll stay an extra week to try and catch a game just because of the historic value. We actually played Notre Dame's baseball team, which was a good experience.
You got into excellent shape at South Carolina. Have you been able to keep that up?
Yes. I weighed in at 188, 190. I really take pride in myself to stay in shape during the offseason. The tough part is staying in shape during the season because you're traveling and it's tough to eat the right things. That's one thing I take the hardest is trying to stay in shape and be ready and committed to the game of baseball.
What was it like to be back at Carolina Stadium this season and throw the ceremonial first pitch of the season?
It was awesome. I've always said we have the greatest fans. They're very loyal. I'll always be a Gamecock no matter what. I can't wait to go back and watch some games - when baseball is all said and done for me - and enjoy the atmosphere.
What do you think of the job Michael Roth has done this year as the Friday night starter?
He's doing really well. For a guy that came in as a hitter, [former pitching] coach [Mark] Calvi really got him to pitch and he's been doing well. I really commend him for that.
Can you believe it's been almost a year since the national championship run?
It's hard to believe, and their season is almost over now. Hopefully they'll get to the world series. They're playing great. They've lost some key guys but they've got some good players. I know they'll be pulling for each other.
Will your best memory at USC always be winning the College World Series?
Most definitely. We were very close and we had great friends on that team. Everybody pulled together. We really didn't have the best talent from all the teams in the country. Our guys fought together. It was amazing what we did. We never gave up on each other.