After striking out the first three Houston batters he faced, LSU junior right-hander Aaron Nola found himself in a serious jam in the bottom of the second inning in Saturday night’s game of the Baton Rouge regional.
The Tigers’ ace allowed a leadoff single to sophomore designated hitter Justin Montemayor to begin the inning. Following a pair of outs, junior left fielder Michael Pyeatt hit a single off Nola to centerfield that drove in a run. Two batters later, the bases were loaded with the score tied 1-1.
But Nola was just getting warmed up.
After Houston loaded the bases, Nola retired 17 of the next 18 batters he faced and led the LSU baseball team (46-14-1) to a 5-1 victory over the Cougars (45-16) Saturday night in Alex Box Stadium.
With the win, the Tigers advanced to Sunday’s championship round game at 7 p.m., and they will play the winner of the 2 p.m. game between Houston and Southeastern Louisiana, which eliminated Bryant Saturday afternoon in extra innings.
Houston senior catcher Caleb Barker, who had one of the four hits Nola surrendered, said the All-American pitcher proved why he’s such a difficult opponent to bat against.
“If you go up there [against Nola] and you’re not aggressive it’s really easy to find yourself behind in the count,” Barker said. “Then when he is ahead, he has stuff to put you away with. Aaron Nola was as advertised.”
LSU coach Paul Mainieri offered even more praise for his star pitcher after the Tigers’ victory, which put them one win away from advancing to the NCAA Super Regional round.
“Aaron Nola led the way for us once again,” Mainieri said. “ He fought through some early struggles and looked like he would only make it through five innings. Then I looked up at the scoreboard, and we were in the eighth inning. It’s just the greatness of Aaron Nola every time he takes the mound.”
Houston’s run in the second inning was the only one allowed by Nola (11-1) in seven-plus innings of action. He also added seven strikeouts for good measure. But Nola received plenty of run support from the rest of the club, and he acknowledged it after the game.
“I got myself in that big jam in the second inning, [and] I gave up that one run,” Nola said. "I made a good bit of mistakes. Luckily our offense was great tonight and batted well.”
LSU struck the game’s first blow. After sophomore right-hander Jake Lemoine (6-7) retired all three batters in the first inning, senior designated hitter Sean McMullen got the Tigers’ bats going with a stand-up double to centerfield to start the second.
McMullen then scored on the next Tiger at-bat when junior first baseman Conner Hale, who was 0-4 in Friday’s game against Southeastern, hit a single up the gap that gave the Tigers an early lead.
“Before my at-bats, coach [Paul] Mainieri was telling me to take the ball to right field and to not try and do too much,” Hale said. “I took that approach, and I got a ball up the middle.”
But the Cougars tied the game in the bottom of the frame, and they looked to take the lead with the bases loaded and their leadoff batter at the plate. But LSU sophomore shortstop Alex Bregman raced down a ball that was hit in foul territory and made a diving catch to get Nola out of the early jam.
“When you have a bull dog like [Nola] on the mound, you’re always going to be on your toes and expecting the baseball,” Bregman said. “It just happened to fall where I could catch it.”
The Tiger reclaimed the lead in the top of the third inning off back-to-back RBI singles from McMullen and Hale, who went a combined 4-for-8 at the plate for 3 RBIs. Bregman and sophomore right fielder Mark Laird added a pair of RBI singles in the top of the seventh inning to extend LSU’s lead to 5-1.
But the star of the night was Nola, and his coach said he hopes his ball club can secure one more victory this weekend to ensure that his top pitcher gets one last chance to compete in his home stadium.
The Tigers need one more win to advance to the NCAA Super Regional round, which would be held in Baton Rouge should they win.
“Somehow and someway, [Nola] always seems to find the fortitude to get out of trouble, and then he settles in,” Mainieri said. “He’s one of the most amazing competitors I’ve ever been around, and our goal now is to get Aaron Nola one last start at Alex Box Stadium.”