Sophomore Cooper impressive as Timberland squeezes out upset against No. 2 Rock Bridge

By Mike Rosenbaum

Timberland head coach Frank Masters had to make a big decision prior to Thursday's game against No. 2 Rock Bridge: start junior Zach Gonzales, who made three starts during the regular season, or sophomore Shane Cooper (right), who had been used exclusively as the team's closer. Masters ultimately opted to go with the latter and, suffice it to say, made the right decision.
Cooper fired seven dominant innings against one of the state's premier offenses, as Timberland upset the Bruins, 2-1 in eight innings, to claim their first district title since 2005.
Scheduled to start at 4:15 pm, the game was pushed back to nearly 5:00 so that the tarp could be removed and the field adequately prepared. The delay didn?t affect the performance or mindset of Cooper or Rock Bridge's John Miles, however, as the two aces dueled deep into the rain-soaked contest. 
Miles (right) got right to business in the top of the first, striking out the Wolves' leadoff hitter on three pitches. The 6-foot-3 right-hander followed by fanning his counterpart, Cooper, but the ball kicked to the backstop and granted the Wolves their first baserunner. Hoping to apply early pressure and capitalize on the far-from-ideal conditions, Cooper attempted to swipe second base but was denied by the strong arm of Bruins' catcher Jeffrey Ausmus. Timberland tested their luck a second time, when shortstop David Masters tried to steal second with two outs. But like Cooper, he was also thrown out by Ausmus. 
Rock Bridge threatened to take an early 1-0 lead in the bottom of the second, when Beau Burkett belted a two-out double off the wall in center and advanced to third on a passed ball. Pitching well beyond his age, Cooper struck out the next batter and escaped the situation unscathed.
The Bruins tested Cooper's make up again in the following frame, when they put runners on second and third with two out. But just as he had done in the previous inning, the right-hander bore down and recorded a big-time strikeout to neutralize the threat.
Timberland seemed poised to score the game's first run in the sixth, when back-to-back singles from Masters and Devin Johnson put runners on first and second with two outs. Miles would allow them to advance no further, however, as he struck out the next batter to end the inning.
Still deadlocked at 0-0 headed into the seventh, it became do-or-die for both teams. In a game that seemed as though the first team to score would win, it was only fitting the game?s first runs would come in the final inning.
Timberland?s Adam Bainbridge singled with one out and advanced to second on a passed ball. After a groundout to first from Brandon McGill, the Wolves finally had their first baserunner of the game reach third base against Miles. Ahead in the count 1-2, another strikeout by Miles appeared imminent. But the right-hander fired a high fastball just out of the reach for Ausmus, deflecting off the Ausmus' glove to the backstop and allowing Bainbridge to score.
Down to their final three outs of the season, it was Burkett who kept the Bruins? dream of avenging their state semi-final loss in 2010 alive, as the junior hammered a dramatic home run over the left field wall to tie the game at one.

'That home run was heart-breaking," said Masters. "That kid (Burkett) has been killing us all day and Shane went 2-0 on him and we don't want to intentionally walk him, and the odds are telling me he's going to hit the ball to one of our eight guys out there...and he hit it to that soccer park out there."
Seemingly un-phased by the momentous blast, Cooper went on to fan two of the next three hitters to give his team another at-bat and chance for the upset.

"I knew that if I got down then the game would be over because the momentum would go to them," said Cooper. "I just kept my head in there and threw strikes and did my job."
With Miles? afternoon over and Landon Clapp now on the hill, freshman Robert Marco ?making his first plate appearance of the 2011 season ? delivered a clutch single to right to lead off the inning. After Marco was replaced by fellow freshman Kyle Fletcher, Cooper deposited a single into shallow left to give the Wolves first and second with nobody out. Altough Clapp was able to kill some of the momentum with a strikeout of Masters, a balk allowed the runners to move up, as the go-ahead run now stood ninety-feet away. The Bruins opted to intentionally walk Johnson in order to set up a double play, but Timberland rolled the dice as Clay Miller executed a perfect suicide squeeze to re-take the lead, 2-1.
?Clay was up against a left-handed pitcher and I was concerned about him pulling off the ball and us not executing,? said Masters when asked about the decision to suicide squeeze.
?He?s improved his bunting this year, so we put the squeeze on, he got it down and it worked.?
In the bottom of the eighth, Cooper was replaced on bump by Gonzales?who was Masters? other option to start the game for the Wolves. The junior right-hander ultimately sealed the district championship, retiring the top of the Bruins' lineup in order to finalize the upset.
?We?ve played in a lot of tight ball games and have been through the grind, but this game didn?t really bother our kids,? noted Masters after the game. ?When they hit the home run and we got the third out, I really felt confident because I like my order coming up the next inning.?
For someone who had not started a game all season, Cooper definitely appeared to know what he was doing on Thursday. The sophomore allowed one run on three hits over seven innings, striking out seven and walking three in the process. Featuring a fastball that sat between 85-87 mph, he fearlessly attacked the Bruins? hitters all afternoon, getting ahead in the count and making big pitches when they were required. But it was the right-hander?s 73-76 mph knuckle-curve, as well his 69-72 mph knuckleball, that kept the opposition off balance and guessing at the plate.
?I actually felt really good,? said Cooper of his outing. ?I wanted to win that game really bad?I wanted it. I?m a competitor; I just want to face the best teams and see how I do.?
?The key for Shane today was his off-speed pitches being around the plate,? a complimentary Masters said of his sophomore starter. ?Anybody can sit on fastballs, so him being able to locates those pitches, especially to their left-handers, was big.?
?I thought Timberland played really well,? said Rock Bridge head coach Justin Towe. ?I know that Cooper hasn?t pitched a ton, but he threw really well. We weren?t taking confident swings against him.?
Just as he has been all season, Miles was stellar on the mound for Bruins. The University of Missouri-bound pitcher allowed no earned runs and scattered five hits over seven innings on Thursday. He struck out eight and walked two.
Miles showcased his best fastball of the season, which sat at 86-87 mph and reached 88 mph many times. The right-hander?s 73-75 mph was devastating once again, not to mention his sparingly-thrown changeup, both of which produced countless swing-and-misses.
?When you sit back and look at it: that was a great high school baseball game,? Towe stated. ?Both guys pitched their tails off?it was a fun game.?
?I?m really proud of the seniors. The legacies that they?ve left set a standard and raised the bar pretty high,? he added.
While seven different Timberland hitters collected a hit, it was Burkett that provided all of the offense for Rock Bridge on Thursday. The junior right fielder finished the game 3-for-3, accounting for all of the Bruins? hits in the contest, including a double and home run.
Timberland will seek their first sectional victory in school history next Tuesday, when they play the winner of Lebanon vs. Helias.