By CONOR NICHOLL
WICHITA -- Patrick Cooper was expecting to be a reliever, but Hays Larks manager Frank Leo asked him to start Monday's contest at the National Baseball Congress World Series.
Cooper delivered a strong performance, pitching the Larks to a 2-1 win over Nevada, Mo.
For years, Cooper enjoyed success as a workhorse starting pitcher. He won eight of 11 decisions for the Larks in 2008 and posted an 8-1 record for Des Moines (Iowa) Area Community College this spring. However, this summer, Cooper was moved into relief for the Falmouth Commodores of the Cape Cod League.
Cooper delivered a 0.66 earned-run average in a team-high 17 games before he returned to the Larks for the World Series.
The right-hander pitched a complete game Monday.
"I only threw three innings once this summer; I expected to go maybe five or six," he said.
Instead, Cooper surpassed his expectations against the Nevada (Mo.) Griffons in a losers' bracket game at Lawrence-Dumont Stadium. Cooper, who didn't allow an earned run, matched several vintage performances from 2008.
"That's what we got used to seeing Patrick do last summer," Leo said. "We were little concerned coming into here that he had been closing in the Cape and he hadn't pitched no more than a couple of innings in an (appearance). He had started this spring, so maybe that was a good little rest for his arm, too. Outstanding job. He is a guy that competes, nothing rattles him."
Cooper worked the second straight complete game for Hays after Kurt Wunderlich pitched a shutout Saturday. Hays (30-15) was scheduled to play Sedalia, Mo., this afternoon. The Larks are guaranteed a top-12 finish in the World Series.
"I actually felt pretty good," Cooper said. "I was surprised with how good I felt."
Cooper, who looked for strikeouts and threw full bore for 1-2 innings per appearance in the Cape, pitched to contact Monday. The approach yielded four hits and two walks against nine strikeouts. He threw 105 pitches in nine innings, worked a first pitch strike to 65 percent of batters faced and improved to 3-0 with a 2.42 ERA in four NBC appearances covering two years.
"I was trying to get back into that starter's mindset," he said. "I haven't done that since the spring. It's good to be back starting, and I realized that I had to pace myself and that I wasn't going two (innings); I was going possibly nine."
Monday's outing continued a terrific two years for Cooper. After a rough freshman year at Eastern Kentucky, Cooper went 8-3 with a 2.76 ERA for Hays last season and earned Jayhawk League Top Prospect honors by Baseball America. After his strong spring season, Cooper was drafted by the Arizona Diamondbacks in the 36th round. Cooper, who has not come to an agreement with Arizona, remains unsigned. He went to the Cape, considered the nation's best collegiate league, and made the all-star team. After Falmouth's season ended, Cooper joined the Larks last Friday and pitched in relief, getting four outs.
For Monday's game, Leo had ace Andrew Heck available on full rest but decided to start Cooper. Heck had thrown a team-high 671βΡ3 innings, easily the most of his collegiate career, and had batted 100-plus times. Nevada (26-18), a former Jayhawk League team, had also struggled offensively with just one extra-base hit in the tournament.
"When we started matching up opponents, matching up our offensive lineups versus our opponents, we felt it was just best to run Patrick out there," Leo said. "Get Andrew another day's rest because a lot of games he has pitched deep into."
On Saturday, the coaches informed Cooper he would start Monday. In his pregame, Cooper focused on pounding the strike zone. It helped the right-hander retire 10 in a row and 17 of 20 during the start.
"Whenever I close, I pitch for strikeouts, obviously," he said. "Whenever I am starting, I am pitching for contact. The first two innings I only had one strikeout. Whenever you are trying to spread it out over an entire game, that is what you have to do, you have to pitch to contact. That is the main difference, pacing yourself and not overthrowing."
Hays tallied one run in the second on Heck's RBI single and took a 2-0 lead in the fifth when Rick Devereaux collected a run-scoring single versus losing pitcher Anthony Pryor. Cooper, mainly using his fastball and trademark slider, stayed efficient with just 69 pitches through seven innings.
"I threw a couple changeups, if they had a few more lefties, I would have thrown some more, but they only had one lefty, slider worked pretty good," Cooper said. "It's still the same thing. That was my out pitch this summer in the Cape. It is still my bread and butter."
"I don't think we squared it up one time to be honest with you," Nevada manager Ryan Mansfield said of Cooper's slider. " It was obviously working."
In the eighth, Cooper ran into his only trouble. After a strikeout and walk, Taylor House laced a double. Matt McClaughlin scored on a passed ball and House, representing the tying run, moved to third. Larks closer Eric Rose started warming up and pitching coach Keith Harper visited Cooper.
"He said, 'You can either finish your pitches or you can go to the dugout,' " Cooper said.
"I said, 'Well, I'll finish,' " Cooper said with a smile. "So that is what I did."
With the runner on third, Cooper changed tactics. He fanned John Wagle and Pete Barrows to end the threat. Cooper finished the game with a scoreless ninth to seal the outstanding performance and Hays' win.
"Whenever I get a guy on third, I kind of got to go into a different mode to try to get that strikeout," Cooper said. "If you put it in play, it is a little bit risky."
"A lot of pitchers might have been shook," Leo said, "... but he regroups and goes through the middle of his lineup to get those last two outs. That was an outstanding performance right there."