Nothing Basic About Michael Cooper

Michael Cooper

In his first professional season, Michael Cooper had taken to closing duties for the Class Low-A Boise Hawks of the Northwest League and had been a key player in the team's success, which included the Eastern Division league crown.

Cooper hasn't pitched since Aug. 21. He has been plagued by shoulder tendonitis and won't return in time for the post-season, which continued on Friday night in Boise with a 5-0 Hawks loss to Salem-Keizer in the second game of the best-of-five Northwest League Championship Series.

"They shut me down as a precaution," said Cooper, who was sent to Mesa, Ariz., for an MRI last week. "I've got more to look forward to than just this year. I've got to look for the possibility of a long career."

While in college, some were uncertain that Cooper might have "a long career." But the Cubs took a chance on the 6'6" right-hander in the 26th round of this year's draft and would figure not to be disappointed thus far.

The former University of California hurler had found a niche with the Division Champion Hawks as their primary closer, having helped the team clinch their 11th division title in 20 years prior to the injury.

While in the Pac 10, Cooper split time between the rotation and the bullpen. His numbers were inconsistent in both.

When he joined the Hawks in late June, he encountered stiff competition for the rotation and ended up in the bullpen – a place where he thrived in, posting a 1.23 ERA and nine saves in 22 innings.

Asked about his switch from being in a starting rotation to a closer's role, Cooper explained that the change was a little difficult to adjust to.

"It's a huge difference," Cooper said of starting versus closing. "What I've found is that between starts, you had to mentally prepare and analyze. You'd have time to work on mechanics in case something wasn't working right, but as a closer, you're being thrown into [more] game situations.

"You don't have time to work on anything because you need your pitches right then and there. I've found it to be the different part; not the hard part."

Obviously, the differences aren't just physical.

"With the mental preparation, it's hard," Cooper said. "You're sitting there in the bullpen [watching] the game and it's starting to get close. It's not nerves, it's more anxiety. It's like, ‘Let me get in there and do this.' The anticipation builds in the moment and it doesn't make you feel uneasy, but it's a change of pace and approaches for your pitching."

Here's what Cooper had noticed from the 'pen.

"You try to mix in your pitches a lot more. As a starter, you face guys two, three and four times if you're pitching well, and you've got to remember how you pitched them before because you can't pitch them that way again. Let's say you throw a guy three or four sliders. He's seen the break on that ball and he's going to pick it up a little easier the second and third times."

Ending the game had been Cooper's specialty, but he'd also been more than your typical one-inning closer, featuring a five-out performance on August 10 for his first professional win.

Brought in to stop a surging Spokane team that had rallied to score five runs late, Cooper shut down the Indians and helped his team to a 6-5 win.

Just a week later, he was called upon in the 10th inning of a 6-6 tie for three innings, in which he limited Vancouver hitters to one hit and two walks while striking out four to get the win.

"I'm not just a basic closer," Cooper boasts. "I've come in early and I even got my first win with a two-inning outing. There's not a lot of room for error."

When asked about the secret to his newfound success in the late innings, Cooper had a very simple explaination.

"As a closer, I just challenge them," he said. "‘Here's the best stuff I got. If you think you can hit it, come hit it.' I like that approach a lot because if I'm going to get beat, I want to get hit with my best stuff; not just something I'm not sure I should throw."

It's obvious to look at those who converted from starters to relievers and see a pattern for success. With players like Eric Gagne, Ryan Dempster, John Smoltz (2001-2004) and a handful of others switching from their starter roles to assume the duties of a closer, it shows a good closer can be more important than a decent starter.

Despite the success of converted closers, Cooper has only modest expectations for next year.

"Hopefully I can make the Daytona roster and prove myself there," he said. "Who knows where you can end up after that? I'll just let the Cubs decide where I belong and I'll try to dominate the hitters. The rest will take care of itself."

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