Cooper Benson has been working to perfect his curveball for years.
With a fastball already capable of hitting 92 mph and a deadly changeup that clocks in right around 80 mph, the lefty junior from San Luis Obispo High School already turned the attention of Arizona State University into a scholarship offer his freshman year. But adding a curveball to his repertoire would go a long way in helping him catch the eyes of Major League Baseball scouts this summer.
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He found unexpected help in the form of Arkansas University pitching coach Wes Johnson at a USA Baseball event in Chicago last summer.
“He taught me new ways to throw it that I really liked and made it more repeatable,” Benson said Friday. “That combined with help from (SLO High pitching coach Eddy) Gravell has really helped me turn it into an out pitch.”
All three pitches were working when Benson took the mound against St. Joseph on Thursday and threw the first complete-game no-hitter of his high school career, striking out 11 batters in a 7-0 win. He had a perfect game going entering the sixth inning but missed out when he hit two batters and walked another in the final two frames.
“It was fun,” Benson said. “I wanted the perfect game, but maybe next time.”
SLO High head coach Brian Wong said the third pitch has made Benson a more complete pitcher.
In a game earlier this season against Mission Prep, a game in which Benson struck out the first eight batters he faced, a nasty curve ball causes a Royals hitter to duck and jump out of the batter's box. It was called a strike.
“Once he starts mixing change and curve with a 90 mph fastball, he's almost unhittable for high school hitters,” Wong said.
The numbers back that up.
In four starts this season, all wins, Benson has 50 strikeouts in 24 innings pitched. He has only allowed five hits and no earned runs. Outside of his coaches, Benson gives a lot of credit to senior catcher Noah Cracknell.
“We have been best friends since I was 8 years old. He knows me and what I like to throw,” Benson said.
SLO High (8-2, 5-1 PAC 8) currently sits in first place, tied with Paso Robles, in the league standings. And Benson has big goals for this season, like a league title and a CIF-Southern Section championship. He remains committed to play at Arizona State, just like Paso Robles sophomore Hunter Barnhart, but Benson has also started thinking about this summer when he will look to assert himself as one of the top high school pitchers in the nation and possibly a target in the 2019 MLB Draft.
“This summer is going to be huge for me,” Benson said. “That’s when scouts will start looking at me and showing up everywhere I pitch.”
Benson, 17, said he plans to play a full schedule of baseball around the country in events for top players like those put on by Perfect Game, USA Baseball and Baseball Factory.
“Sometimes it’s hard to stay present with so much going on, but I am just enjoying every game and taking it step by step,” Benson said.
For now, that means leading SLO High on the mound.
"I feel like we are going to win every time we take the mound because everyone feeds off my energy and we all play better," Benson said. "Hopefully we can keep it up and make a run at a CIF Championship."