The origins of the surname Nola aren’t clearly defined, but there is just something about it that screams “Louisiana!” N-O-L-A is a common acronym for New Orleans, La., and, in fact, The New Orleans Times-Picayune newspaper’s website address is nola.com.
It is against this backdrop that standout right-handed pitcher and Baton Rouge, La., native Aaron Nola seems a perfect fit for his role as staff ace at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge. While maybe not quite Louisiana Cajun, Nola is a Bayou Bengal through and through, just like his brother Austin Nola before him.
Austin Nola, a former LSU All-American shortstop, was a fifth round pick of the Miami Marlins in the 2012 MLB amateur draft who is this season playing in the Marlins’ farm system at Double-A Jacksonville. Austin had been drafted right out of Catholic High School in 2008 – just as Aaron was in 2011 – and again after his junior season at LSU in 2011. He elected to come back to campus for his senior season, and Aaron didn’t think twice about joining his brother on the LSU campus.
“After looking at it I knew I wasn’t ready for pro ball out of high school and coming here to LSU has been the best decision I’ve ever made,” Nola told PG over the telephone on Thursday before getting on a bus bound for College Station, Texas, where the Tigers have a three-game weekend series against SEC rival Texas A&M.
“The plus side of that was my brother Austin stayed for his senior year so we got to play one year with each other; it worked out perfectly,” he said. “I may never get another chance in my baseball career to play with him ever again, so that might have been the last time we would ever play together. He’s always been the one that I’ve looked up to and he’s definitely a great leader; I’ve been looking up to him my whole life.”
Nola’s parents – father A.J. and mother Stacie – live just a couple of minutes drive from the LSU campus and Alex Box Stadium, and the entire family has been attending Tigers’ baseball games for as long as Aaron can remember. Those early years were when legendary head coach Skip Bertman was leading the program to five NCAA Division I College World Series Championships between 1991 and 2000.
So yes, LSU Tigers Purple-and-Gold coursed through Aaron Nola’s veins and locals knew there was virtually no possibility he wouldn’t honor his commitment to LSU and ABCA Hall of Fame head coach Paul Mainieri, even after the Toronto Blue Jays selected him in the 22nd round of the 2011 MLB amateur draft.
And in another development in June 2011, Mainieri hired 20-year coaching veteran Alan Dunn as the Tigers’ pitching coach. Dunn learned immediately that his young ace-in-waiting was right where he wanted and needed to be.
“With Aaron growing up in Baton Rouge, his brother playing here, the family ties of the Purple-and-Gold – I think that’s something he’s wanted to do since he was even old enough to think about what he wanted to do in his life,” Dunn told PG this week. “I think it was kind of ingrained in him to come to LSU. … He let it be known that hey, ‘I have these aspirations of going to LSU, I want to experience that, I want to play with my brother and I want to have a chance to play for championships.’”
Now Aaron Nola is the ace of Dunn’s LSU pitching staff. A 2014 Perfect Game Preseason College All-American and the Bayou Bengals’ Friday night starter, Nola is 7-1 with a 1.40 ERA and 95 strikeouts against 19 walks in 77 1/3 innings for the fifth-ranked Tigers (34-11-1 overall, 12-8-1 SEC).
It’s the stuff that dreams are made of, and whatever expectations Nola may have had as he works to lead Louisiana State to its second College World Series Championship since 2009 under Mainieri, they may soon be exceeded. Perfect Game ranks Nola as the No. 7 overall prospect in June’s MLB amateur draft and he was selected sixth overall in PG’s MLB Mock Draft Version 1 published this week.
“Every kid’s dream is to be drafted in the first round and be a high, high draft pick,” Nola said. “It (speaks) to all the work I put in and to all my coaches, especially with Coach Dunn working with me through these years. He’s definitely helped me develop my mental game and all my pitches have gotten better. I give a lot of credit to Coach Dunn.”
Dunn looks at Nola as a can’t-miss at the professional level, barring any unforeseen circumstances, of course.
“It goes back to looking at what he can do,” Dunn said. “Obviously his stuff is top-tier stuff and you say, ‘OK, what does he do with that stuff?’ Well, he’s able to command that stuff and that’s two things to pitch at the next level that you have to have – stuff and command; the third aspect is mound presence, poise, belief in his abilities. When you look at all of that together you say this kid has a chance to move on to the next level and have a very, very successful career.”
Always known for the uncanny command he has of his pitches – his ability to throw strikes – Nola has impressed scouts since his high school years with his pin-point control. He has pitched 287 innings in an LSU Tigers uniform over the last two-plus seasons heading into this weekend, and has walked only 44 batters while striking out 306 – averages of 1.4 walks and 9.6 strikeouts per nine innings.
“Command is the first step in being successful. You have to be able to throw those pitches where you want to across that plate and obviously (Nola) has just been tremendous at doing that for all three years he’s been here,” Dunn said. “He has such good body awareness on the mound in his delivery – his timing is so good – and he’s able to repeat his release point consistently.”
When writing his Draft Focus profile of Nola that was published on perfectgame.org on April 14, PG national crosschecker and scouting supervisor Frankie Piliere noted that when Nola throws a pitch, “he knows how to command it expertly.” Piliere went on to write:
“That’s how you define Aaron Nola – he can throw three big-league offerings for quality strikes and he does so from a deceptive arm slot. His command is arguably better than anyone else in the nation and that is a recipe for reaching the big leagues in a hurry.”
“I’ve kind of had it my whole life,” Nola said of the command he possesses. “I’ve always been able to locate my fastball and as I got older I got a little better at it. It’s not easy – people think that it’s so easy for me – and I’m trying pretty hard to throw that ball and hit the corners and try to get those guys out. As the game goes on I’m going to get better at it – the strike zone is going to get smaller and the game is going to get harder, and that makes me put in a little more work.”
Armed with a 92 mile-per-hour fastball and ranked No. 89 nationally in the class of 2011 by Perfect Game, Nola was far from an unknown commodity coming out of Baton Rouge’s Catholic High School.
He was named the Louisiana Class 5A Player of the Year and also the state’s “Mr. Baseball” after his senior season and as a junior helped lead Catholic to the 2010 Class 5A state championship. Nola was a combined 21-2 with 214 strikeouts and an ERA of around 1.30 in his three varsity seasons.
He pitched in seven PG WWBA and PG BCS tournaments between 2008 and 2010, five of them with Chad Raley and the Baton Rouge-based Marucci Elite. His last appearance was at the 2010 PG WWBA World Championship in Jupiter, Fla., pitching for Marucci Elite.
“It was a good time and it was kind of a time of development for me,” Nola said. “That’s kind of what summer ball is all about for some people is development and meeting new people. Playing in front of scouts and playing in front of different coaches out there. It was definitely a fun time.”
Nola’s freshman season at LSU set the tone for his breakthrough sophomore campaign. With 2012 first-round draft pick (No. 4 overall) Kevin Gausman leading the staff, Nola made 16 starts (19 appearances) and finished 7-4 with a 3.61 ERA. He struck out 89 and walked only seven in 89 2/3 innings, and his walk total and his 40 batters struck-out-looking both led the SEC.
LSU returned to the College World Series in Omaha last season for the first time since it won the NCAA Division I National Championship in 2009, but was eliminated in two games, losing to UCLA, 2-1, and North Carolina, 4-2. Nola made the start against UCLA and certainly pitched well enough to win, allowing only two unearned runs on five hits over eight innings with five strikeouts and one walk.
“It felt like I was stepping out in the major leagues because it felt like so many people were there; the field is so big I could barely even hear the fans because they feel so far away,” he said. “It was definitely an awesome experience being on the mound for the Tigers, especially after watching the 2009 team with Austin on it, being there at Rosenblatt Stadium watching (LSU) win it. It was definitely special for me to go out and get on the mound for the Tigers; last year was a real special moment for me.”
The CWS loss was his first of the season. Nola finished 12-1 with a 1.57 ERA, and struck out 122 against 18 walks in 126 innings. He was named a First-Team All-American by Perfect Game and four other organizations, was a National Pitcher of the Year Finalist and was named the SEC Pitcher of the Year. When PG named him a 2014 Preseason All-American, PG college baseball editor Kendall Rogers dubbed Nola “Mr. Command.”
“There is one thing about pitching that you have to be able to do,” Dunn said. “It doesn’t matter what level you’re pitching at you have to be able to command your fastball because that is what the game is built around. For a pitcher, if he can’t command his fastball and pitch with it, he can’t play the game. … It’s too difficult to play this game, and that’s the way it’s been ever since this game has been in existence.”
Dunn’s pitching staff this season is young and extremely talented. Freshman left-hander Jared Poche (6-3, 2.59 ERA) has emerged as an effective Saturday starter, and junior right-hander Joe Broussard (2-0, 8 saves, 0.36 ERA, 25 1/3 innings), sophomore southpaw Hunter Devall (1-0, 1.56 ERA, 17 1/3 inn.), and freshman right-handers Parker Bugg (2-1, 2 saves, 1.53 ERA, 29 1/3 inn.) and Alden Cartwright (1-0, 1.59 ERA, 22 2/3 inn.) have been especially reliable out of the bullpen.
Heading into the weekend, the Tigers’ staff owned a 2.58 team ERA, which ranks 15th nationally. The 2013 team ERA of 2.40 ranked third in the country.
“Up to this point we’ve done some good things as a staff,” Dunn said. “When you look at how you have to manage games through the course of a 56-game schedule, man, it is a grind; you’ve got to have guys who step up.” Nola feels like the entire staff has bought into what Dunn is selling.
“He’s not just a pitching coach, he teaches us the little things,” Nola said. “He teaches us about the mental aspect of the game which is one of the biggest things in baseball. You have to face a lot of adversity, a lot of challenges, and he’s helped me overcome that. He’s got knowledge of the game and he’s helped me step that part of my game up; he’s definitely helped me in my career with that.”
(Editor’s note: One of the Tigers’ most effective position players is sophomore shortstop Alex Bregman, a 2011 Perfect Game All-American and highly ranked 2015 draft prospect. As a collegian, Bregman was a 2013 Perfect Game First-Team All-American and 2014 PG Preseason First-Team All-American, and was recognized by three organizations as the 2013 National Freshman of the Year).
The goal now for Nola and his teammates is a return trip to Omaha for the 2014 College World Series with the intention of improving upon their 0-2 showing from a year ago. Perfect Game projects the Tigers’ as the No. 1 seed in their own Baton Rouge Regional but not earning a national seed.
“Everybody knows we went two-and-out and we had an unbelievable year and an unbelievable team last year,” Nola said. “We definitely weren’t expecting to lose two games and head back to Baton Rouge, but now we know what it’s about and we have the experience over there (in Omaha) and we know what it takes to win to get there.”
Three years ago, Nola made the decision to stay home in Louisiana and pitch for his beloved Bayou Bengals instead of starting a professional career right out of high school. It’s been a magical run and one that doesn’t look to end anytime soon.
“It’s definitely flown by quicker than I ever thought it would,” Nola said. “It seems like yesterday that I was a freshman hanging out with my brother and his buddies on the team, and playing with him – they called me ‘Baby Nola’. My sophomore year I still felt young because I was still playing with some of those other guys that were older than me, so coming into this year I felt really old; we had a whole wave of new people coming in.
“I said, ‘Dang, I feel old’ and all this stuff flew by quicker than I thought,” he added with a laugh. “Since then, I’ve kind of had to take on that leadership role and now I’ve gotten used to it.”