LSU coach Paul Mainieri didn’t have trouble describing junior right-hander Aaron Nola following what would be his final performance in Alex Box Stadium on May 31.
“He’s one of the most amazing competitors I’ve ever been around, and our goal now is to get Aaron Nola one more start at Alex Box Stadium,” Mainieri said.
But the Tigers failed to grant their coach his wish.
Two consecutive losses followed Nola’s one-run outing in the Baton Rouge Regional to end the Tigers’ season, and Mainieri’s desire to see his star pitcher get one final throw in front of his home crowd was thrashed when the Philadelphia Phillies selected Nola with the seventh pick of the 2014 MLB Draft.
An impressive late-season offensive surge of 100 runs that resulted in 10 consecutive victories may have hidden some of LSU’s glaring weaknesses, but the final two games of the season shed light on one obvious shortcoming for the club — Nola was all the Tigers really had working for them.
In a rollercoaster season that featured a mixture of stagnant bats, unsteady pitching, late-game meltdowns and questionable fan support, Nola brought a much-needed combination of stability and dominance every time he took the mound.
In the 16 games Nola started in 2014, LSU walked away victorious 15 times. He finished his second consecutive First-Team All-American season with an 11-1 record and 134 strikeouts, which led the Southeastern Conference. Nola’s 1.47 ERA was also good enough for second in the SEC behind Vanderbilt sophomore right-hander Carson Fulmer, whom Nola outpitched by nearly 47 innings.
For much of the season, the Tigers faced constant questions regarding their talent, ability and desire. But Nola’s presence always seemed to add one major aspect to the Tigers’ game that was otherwise suspect at crucial times this season — confidence.
There was just a different environment whenever the 6-foot-1-inch Baton Rouge native took the mound. Opposing teams unsuccessfully tried to rack up runs against his 93-mph fastball, change-of-pace curve ball and much-improved changeup. In more than 116 innings pitched, Nola surrendered only 19 runs compared with the 94 his teammates provided him in his outings.
The two-time SEC Pitcher of the Year led a pitching staff that finished second in the conference in total ERA, but he was something of an outlier. The LSU pitchers had an ERA of 2.89 without Nola, which would have been sixth in the SEC.
Despite the respectable season freshman southpaw Jared Poche’ delivered for LSU by going 9-3, it’s difficult to imagine a team reaching its lofty goals of a national championship with a freshman as its No. 2 pitcher.
Fair or not, Mainieri was heavily criticized for his decision to pull junior left-handed pitcher Kyle Bouman out of a 4-0 lead against Houston with a chance to advance to the NCAA Super Regional round. But hindsight is always 20/20, and the lack of reliable arms for Mainieri to choose from is what ultimately doomed LSU in the end, not the decision to sit a pitcher who had thrown through seven innings only once the entire season.
Fans seemed to believe the Tigers’ red-hot bats would carry them all the way to Omaha despite the likelihood of facing better pitchers as the postseason advances. What they failed to understand was that LSU had to at least match the opposition’s pitching staff if it wanted to bring home the title, not depend on the unforeseen offensive production the Tiger bats had provided late.
The Tigers had only one Aaron Nola, and they could only ride him so far.
David Gray is a 25-year-old mass communication senior from Gastonia, N.C.