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Toughest battle far from Smoak

RALEIGH — Giving up a couple home runs to Justin Smoak was far from the worse thing James Madison pitcher Alex Valadja has faced this season or in the past year.

Valadja, a freshman left-hander, contracted meningitis and the shingles late last summer. This spring he came down with mononucleosis, which is why he had pitched in only five games before Sunday.

“When I first got to James Madison, it was probably about four days after I got out of the hospital,” Valadja said. “I felt great; I was ready to go mentally, but as soon as I stepped on the mound, my body kind of told me exactly what was going wrong with me.”

Valadja said he tired to the point he went from throwing in the high-80s in high school to between 78-81. He estimated he recovered the velocity about two weeks ago.

After a rough start Sunday, he ended up lasting into the sixth inning, retiring nine in a row at one point.

“There’s a couple pitches I’d like to have back, but Smoak’s an amazing hitter, and I learned a lot of stuff from pitching to the Gamecocks today,” Valadja said.

Cooper’s outing. USC starting pitcher Blake Cooper said besides winning, his main goal against James Madison was to keep his bullpen fresh for the rest of the regional. He did his part.

Cooper lasted into the ninth inning, and would have stayed in the game if the last batter he faced had not singled.

“Today I don’t think I had my great stuff,” Cooper said. “Later in the game, I was trying to throw a little more changeups, so I could get hitters off-balance, try to roll it out there so the defense could make plays behind me.”

Instead for the second consecutive game he set a career-high for strikeouts, this time with nine.

“With the weather the way it was, he did a tremendous job,” USC coach Ray Tanner said. “He battled his rear end off. He and I talked a couple times before the game and after the game, and he was really trying to stay in a position to keep our bullpen as fresh as it could. And he gutted it out.”

Master of the plunk. Scott Wingo’s unusual skill at getting hit by a pitch continued. He was plunked in his second at-bat against N.C. State, the 18th time he has reached base that way this season.

That put Wingo within three of USC’s single-season record, set by Brandon Walters in 1996. Wingo long ago set the team’s freshman record.

Smoak keeps going. Smoak’s two homers against James Madison gave him a career-high 23. It was the third multiple-homer game of Smoak’s career, all this season. The previous two, against Wofford and USC Upstate, were three-homer games.

Smoak ranks fifth in the SEC for most home runs.

Reach Emerson at (803) 771-8676.