All the excited attention was focused on Lonnie Chisenhall, Nick Fuller and incoming JUCO Jay Brown. When Brown got hurt, Gamecock Nation shuttered. When the Chisenhall/Cooper crime-spree led to a swift divorce proceeding, Gamecock fans blushed in embarrassment and shame. Three newcomers, three stars, they all suffered or caused three disappointing results.
Through it all though, one young man heaved a large chunk of the burden on his own shoulders and carried the load like a man. Blake Cooper, South Carolina’s unsung freshman right hander, has accomplished many things this year – things neither he nor Head Coach Ray Tanner expected so soon.
Asked if he expected this type of season out of the freshman, Coach Tanner quickly answered, “No! In the fall, he wasn’t very good – he had a terrible fall. But Coach Calvi told me not to rush to judge because he’s had a long summer. He said, ‘His arm is a little weary. He needs some down time.’ Well we can’t give freshman down time in the fall, you gotta’ prove yourself. Then Coach Calvi warned me again to get him his proper rest. Well, he got his rest, came out in the Spring and he was a different guy.”
Looking back though, it should have been expected. “In Little League I was asked to pitch almost every game,” says Cooper, “I think I worked harder than other kids. They all liked to play just to play while I liked to work at it. I wanted to have a future in it.”
Growing up, Cooper credits his father and his former High School Summer League Coach (also a former Major League Baseball player), Tommy Dunbar, for having the biggest impact on his development as a pitcher.
Clemson was going to offer Cooper a scholarship as were other SEC schools, but the boyhood Gamecock fan from Neeses, SC said there was never a question. He committed early because, as he puts it, “It was a lifetime dream.”
When highly touted JUCO transfer Jay Brown went down for the season, Coach Tanner approached Cooper only a few days before with the news. Cooper would take to the hill in the opening game of a three game set versus Brown University. Brown seems like a meaningless non-conference game, but not now. Imagine being 18 years old, on a team ranked in the top 10 and being responsible for dropping the first game at home against small non-conference Brown.
With just over 4,400 in attendance, Cooper pitched the Gamecocks to a 13-1 victory. In only two hours and twenty three minutes, the fans got to see a glimpse of the future. Cooper went five innings yielding only one unearned run, five hits, one walk and six strikeouts on 79 pitches.
Using all four of his pitches (fastball, slider, curve and splitter), Cooper baffled the Brown Bears throughout. As if four weren’t enough of a repertoire, he’s working on a fifth pitch as well. Insisting that a pitcher has to have a good change up, Blake says he’ll probably bring it out in 2008 rather than what’s left in the 2007 campaign.
His style, like his approach, is somewhat odd. Comparing his pitching style to Tim Hudson of the Braves, Cooper says he’s calmer then he is intense. He’s quick to point out though that sometimes the situation calls for intensity. When he’s not in one of those situations, the soft spoken righty describes being overlooked in the MLB Draft with a shrug, “Um, I probably would have come here anyway.”
Wearing the Garnet and Black was more important to Blake than holding any grudge against pro scouts. It would be easy to refer back to his numbers while cursing the scouts, “I told you so!”
That’s not Blake. Even Blake’s mother Tammy says, “He’s always been soft spoken. He was an easy kid. He was never in trouble aside from the regular ‘Clean your room’ stuff.”
Though he finished the regular season with a 7-2 record, the Gamecocks won more games with Cooper on the mound than any other pitcher, winning two other games he started but did not get the decision.
Nine days later Cooper pitched against perennial powerhouse LSU. Though LSU had fallen on hard times, just seeing “LSU” on the jersey must have been intimidating. Up to the task though, the freshman was even more impressive this time out throwing 5.2 innings, yielding only two hits and one walk while striking out four. Carolina won the game 9-5 with all runs being scored against the bullpen.
Asked to pick his favorite moment of the season, Cooper didn’t hesitate, “It had to be the Vanderbilt game.”
That highlight came while the team was ranked #1 in the nation. The Vanderbilt Commodores, ranked #3 at the time, came to Columbia looking to regain their top ranking. Guns blazing, the Commodores took the first two games of the series. Smelling blood on Sunday afternoon, they went in for the kill. It would not happen though as Cooper threw 7.2 innings of freshman nastiness allowing six hits and one walk while striking out four.
His Mom disagrees though, “My favorite moment was his first standing ovation against Brown. I cried. I was happy, I was proud, I had butterflies.”
That start was huge for the Gamecocks for more than one reason. Not only was it to avoid an embarrassing sweep at home as the top team in the nation, but also because the Gamecocks had used nine pitchers the previous two days trying to stop an explosive Commodore offense. Blake’s 7.2 innings were just what the bullpen needed – a rest.
When asked if he gives his teammates any grief about being the only starter on the team to beat the #1 team in the nation, he shrugs, then smiles, “Nah. I just keep that one to myself.”
Coach Tanner continues his praise, “He’s pitched some outstanding games and he’s pitched some games where we really needed him to be good that day. That’s a lot to ask of a true freshman. I’m ecstatic with Blake Cooper!"
Even more impressive is Cooper’s two losses on the season. Blake took the loss in Clemson giving up one earned run in four innings with no walks and four strikeouts. His other loss came at the SEC Tournament when he pitched 5.2 innings against #7 National Seed Arkansas – a game in which he gave up three earned runs while yielding six hits, one walk and five strikeouts.
Studying his game-by-game statistics, Cooper was only hit hard twice the entire season. In two consecutive starts in May, one of which was on the road, Cooper allowed 10 earned runs in 13.2 innings. Removing those two days the freshman is looking at a season ERA of 3.91 rather than his actual 4.53. Not to mention he’s tied with Harris Honeycutt for the team lead in victories.
All of this from a freshman who wasn’t expected to do much compared to the rest of the awesome 2007 recruiting class. Even Aaron Fitt of baseball America said Wednesday, “I can tell you we did not have him in our preseason Top 50 freshman prospects list.”
Pitching isn’t where his athletic ability ends though; Cooper was also named to South Carolina’s All-State football team as a punter. He averaged 43 yards per punt and was told he could probably walk-on at South Carolina.
(Note to Steve Spurrier – Succup’s a junior, right?)
As for Blake’s mom, Tammy, if standing ovations bring you to tears you’d better buy stock in Kleenex.