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Hunch pays off for South Carolina

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Rasmussen was selected in the second round of the draft three weeks ago by the Florida Marlins. Cole and Bauer are expected to be first-round picks when they are draft-eligible next year. All three were tanned, rested and ready, as they might say in Southern California, after the Bruins basically breezed through their side of the bracket to reach the best-of-3 finals.

The Gamecocks, meanwhile, played four straight elimination games after losing their opener, were down to their last strike against Oklahoma before rallying to win, then had to beat Clemson twice to reach the finals.

Everyone figured the Gamecocks were on fumes. But, as Tanner said, "You play this long, you can be tired in two weeks."

Or maybe two days.

South Carolina's 7-1 win over UCLA on Monday night at Rosenblatt Stadium put the Gamecocks one win away from the school's first national championship in a major sport.

Senior right-hander Blake Cooper limited UCLA to one hit -- a single lofted along the right field line with one out in the fifth -- through eight shutout innings. Cooper (13-2), who was pitching on three days' rest for the second time here, was finally relieved in the ninth after allowing two more hits and one run. He finished with 10 strikeouts.

"Gotta give him a ton of credit," said UCLA coach John Savage. "He pounded the strike zone. Threw his change and breaking ball for strikes and really kept us off balance all evening."

"I felt fine warming up," said Cooper, whose last pitch in the ninth inning was his 300th in three starts over nine days. "I wasn't going to have enough giddy-up on my fastball. I really wanted to really on sink and being able to throw curveballs and sliders and strikes."

Tanner decided to go with Cooper on Sunday night, but wanted to reaffirm his decision Monday morning when he called the pitcher to his hotel room. Tanner offered to let Cooper pitch Tuesday to get one more day of rest.

"I listened to him and tried to read his body language," said Tanner.

Cooper was convincing in asking for the ball, saying, "I just don't think it makes a lot of sense for me to wait until tomorrow."

And with that, Tanner finally had his starter.

When South Carolina defeated Clemson Saturday night, Tanner was asked who would be the starting pitcher for the Gamecocks in Game 1.

"I don't know," he said.

Tanner wasn't trying to be evasive.

South Carolina's pitching staff was weary from coming through the losers' bracket.

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After all, Tanner had already brought starters Cooper and Sam Dyson back on short rest in win-or-go-home games.

Even more shocking was last Friday against Clemson when Tanner handed the ball to sophomore Michael Roth, a situational left-hander who typically faced one or two batters when summoned from the bullpen. Roth did not have a start in 33 appearances this season and had not pitched more than 3.1 innings in any one outing.

When Roth bumped into Tanner at the elevator of the team hotel before the game, he said, "I told Coach I would throw until my arm fell off ... And he asked me if that would be one inning."

Actually, losing a limb may have been less surprising than what did happen. Roth went out and tossed a three-hitter, allowing one run against the Tigers in what had to be one of the more amazing CWS performances.

What inspiration did Tanner have for the finals? It wasn't immediately known.

After Saturday's win, Tanner said, "Coach (Mark) Calvi and I have a routine going that we get together at 1:30 in the morning. It seems to be a good routine. Everybody's asleep and we sit there for a little while and chat it up and visit. So that's what we'll do again tonight and try to figure it out."

The night came and went and Tanner was asked again at Sunday morning's championship press conference who would start for the Gamecocks.

"I don't know," he said.

South Carolina media members impatiently waited for word Sunday afternoon and well into the night. Finally, an alarm went off at 1:30 a.m. Monday at South Carolina's team hotel. It was an important decision, but this was ridiculous.

"I didn't know what was going on there," said Tanner.

Turns out it was a fire alarm that brought Gamecocks players and coaches and other hotel guests down into the lobby of the downtown Embassy Suites.

It was nine hours before first pitch when a decision was finally announced, that Cooper would start.

Was Tanner pushing his luck?

"I don't think it's luck," he said. "It's a great pitching staff."

Cole looked all but unbeatable in his first CWS appearance, in which he allowed one hit over the first six innings and struck out 13 batters in a 6-3 win over TCU. But Cole (11-4) never found a rhythm Monday night, allowing 11 hits and four earned runs with just two strikeouts over four innings in one of his worst outings of the year.

Tanner couldn't have predicted it. He was leaving himself open to plenty of second-guessing from Gamecocks fans by burning one of his best starters in a situation where winning seemed a 50/50 proposition even under the best circumstances.

But Cooper made his coach look like a genius.

Tanner has impressed upon his pitchers how important conditioning is to success.

"I always tell the guys you have to put some hay in the barn," he said.

Cooper embraced it in the offseason, trimming down through an exhaustive workout regimen that improved his stamina and endurance.

Tanner appreciates the commitment Cooper and the other pitchers have made, questioning whether he could do it.

"A lot of times I'm thinking I don't know if I want to be a pitcher," said Tanner. "That's too much work for the amount of time you get to play. But that's where you are in this world of athletics right now.

"Guys throw 125, 130 pitches, but they're really preparing to throw 200, not that you'll ever do it. But you're trying to be physically fit to withstand the kind of pressures you have coming your way."

Cooper's outing brought the bullpen some relief. But South Carolina still needs another starter. So what's up Tanner's sleeve for Tuesday?

"I'm not 100 percent sure," Tanner said. "I think it will probably be a left-hander."

That could mean bringing back Roth or giving freshman Tyler Webb a chance.

Tanner will probably sleep on it, unless the fire alarm goes off again.

"I might pull it tonight," said Tanner. "Keep the same routine."