College : : Story
Sunday, June 02, 2013

Cool, calm Nola leads LSU

Kendall Rogers        

BATON ROUGE, La. -- Murphy’s Law hit LSU right between the eyes, then normalcy returned.

That’s precisely, and perhaps the only way you can describe LSU’s wild come from behind 8-5 win over gutsy Sam Houston State Saturday night in front of 10,752 fans at Alex Box Stadium, an LSU attendance record.

Everything that could go wrong in the first inning against the Bearkats went wrong. LSU sent sophomore right-handed pitcher Aaron Nola to the mound. Nola hadn’t allowed more than two runs in a game since March 15 against Mississippi State, so the Tigers felt very good about their chances, and rightfully so.

The first inning played out like a horror movie for Mainieri, the LSU infield and Nola. The usually extremely reliable LSU infield booted the ball around in the first, as sure-handed Christian Ibarra began the game with an error. Then an error on shortstop Alex Bregman two batters later, leading to a run, and yet another costly second error by Ibarra leading to a run.

In addition to the LSU defense scuffling in the first, Nola wasn’t ultra sharp in the frame, partly him, partly home plate umpire Billy Van Raaphorst, who had an incredibly tight strike zone throughout the contest. Van Raaphorst made Nola and SHSU starting pitcher Caleb Smith stay in a tight window early in the game, aiding SHSU’s early onslaught.

By the time the damage was all done in the first inning, the Bearkats scored five runs on three hits, and even left two more runners on base, likely scoring more if LSU center fielder Andrew Stevenson doesn’t make a sensational catch to rob leadoff hitter Jessie Plumlee to end the frame. Aaron Nola’s pitch count was 42 after the first inning.

“That was the longest first inning I’ve ever experienced,” LSU starting pitcher Aaron Nola said. “I just went back to Mississippi State last year. I gave up five runs in that game in the first inning, then put up six zeroes after that. I kind of thought about that, and though the umpire’s zone was kind of tight, I overcame it.”

Bouncing back in the second inning against the Bearkats suddenly became a challenging obstacle for the Tigers. The LSU crowd was angry, letting the home plate umpire have it between innings with a chorus of boos, and perhaps a few four-letter words. But as the Tigers came off the field after the first, Mainieri got his team together and explained that with Nola on the mound, don’t worry, everything was going to be all right.

And it was.

“At that point, I was thinking what a nightmare, [Aaron] you have to get us through five innings,” Mainieri said about Nola. “That was a very courageous performance by Nola.”

Though Nola had the shaky first inning against the Bearkats, his offense chipped away at Sam Houston State left-handed starting pitcher Caleb Smith, ousting him after 2 2/3 innings, while they also rose to the occasion late in the game against the SHSU bullpen.

Meanwhile, Nola settled in after the first and had a fantastic start. He put together a 1-2-3 second inning, while setting the tone for the rest of his start with a strong third inning that included a trio of strikeouts after a leadoff double for the Bearkats.

“They did a really nice job against Aaron, and you just have to adjust to whatever circumstances you have. The strike zone tonight wasn’t liberal, so you had to throw it over the plate. I thought he became a bit more aggressive earlier in counts as the game progressed,” Mainieri said. “We’ve seen Aaron do this before, though.”

Considering Nola was at 42 pitches after the first inning, the rest of his performance was efficient. The talented right-hander struck out six batters, walked three and allowed five runs -- none earned -- on six hits in seven innings of work. Nola finished the night with 111 pitches, 70 for strikes, and likely would’ve come back out for the eighth inning had the Tigers not opted to go with left-handed closer Chris Cotton with a three-run advantage.

“Early on, he really pounded the strike zone, but we did a nice job of laying off some breaking balls,” Sam Houston State coach David Pierce said. “I thought we fought hard, he’s really something. He just kept coming at us, he had great velocity, and he was more curveball/fastball than he was changeup. He looked good.”

With the Tigers holding an 8-5 advantage with six outs to get, Chris Cotton did his thing out of the bullpen. The outstanding left-handed pitcher had filthy stuff as usual and struck out three batters in the final two frames. With his 16th save of the season, Cotton enjoys a new place in the LSU history book, now tied with Matty Ott for the all-time single-season saves lead. Chances are good Cotton will hold that record by himself before the weekend is over.

Everything went wrong for the Tigers for much of the night, causing plenty of tense moments throughout the contest, which lasted three hours, 44 minutes.

Now, all is right in Baton Rouge. The Tigers, and Nola, conquered Murphy’s Law and now aim for yet another NCAA Regional Championship on Sunday.
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