By Trey Mongrue
Throughout his three years at LSU, Aaron Nola has never been one to show his emotions, especially when he is on the mound. But when Alabama’s Ben Moore grounded out to Conner Hale to seal a 2-0 Tiger victory last Saturday afternoon, even the usually subdued Nola was prone to letting off a couple of fist pumps.
“Getting that last out of the game was probably the most memorable,” said the junior starting pitcher afterwards. “Pitching in the daytime, in front of all of these fans cheering me on, there was definitely a lot of emotion.”
Depending on how the Tigers fare this weekend at Auburn and in next week’s Southeastern Conference Tournament, LSU could find itself back at Alex Box Stadium/Skip Bertman Field for a Regional. However, there is also a chance that Nola – one of the best pitchers in the program’s illustrious history who projects to be a high pick in next month’s MLB Draft – may have pitched his last game in front of a home crowd.
If it was, his final bow was quite a memorable one.
“I can’t put into the words the greatness of Aaron Nola,” said LSU coach Paul Mainieri. “For these people that were here [on Saturday], the coaches, the fans, the media, what an unbelievable privilege it is for us to have that kid and be able to watch him pitch.
“I’ve just never seen anything like him.”
All Nola did was fire a shutout to etch his first complete game of the season to improve to 8-1 on the season. With his pinpoint command on his blistering fastball and sweeping slider, Nola silenced the Crimson Tide’s usually potent bats as he allowed just four hits, walked none, and struck out nine.
For a little while, it appeared that Nola was working towards something really special when he entered the sixth inning with five perfect innings in the bag. Unfortunately, Alabama’s Casey Hughston ruined the potential Disney movie script with a sharp single up the middle.
“He wasn’t rattled at all,” recalled Tyler Moore. “I think the rest of us were really disappointed on the inside.”
Moore has had the distinct honor of serving as Nola’s personal catcher this season and is now just coming to grips with just how good the right-hander from Baton Rouge is.
“I don’t think you can be surprised with him anymore,” said Moore. “He shows us how good he is game in and game out.”
Even with the perfect game bid dashed, Nola was still motivated to push forward.
A week prior, it appeared he was destined to end his complete game drought as he walked out for the ninth inning with a 4-0 lead at Texas A&M. But a lead off walk, a single, a sacrifice fly and another walk later, Nola found himself handing the ball to closer Joe Broussard and heading to the dugout with the game’s outcome still in doubt.
“I know I can finish games out,” said Nola who set an LSU record last season with four consecutive complete games. “The first hitter is the most important in the ninth inning and getting him out is the key to winning the ballgame.”
Fearing that a similar situation could come about again, Mainieri went to Nola before the ninth inning against Alabama and brought up the possibility of taking the pitcher out to let Broussard try and close the game out.
Nola was having none of that.
“He looked me in the eye and said, ‘No way. I can finish,’” Mainieri recalled. “I said, ‘Are you going to be mad if I take you out?’
“He said, ‘I’m going to be really mad.’”
Unlike in College Station, not only did Nola retire the first batter this time around but he set Alabama down in order for a sixth time on Saturday.
“I finally got a complete game under my belt this season,” Nola said. “It’s always good for myself and the team for me to go deep in the ballgame and give the team the chance to win.”
Nola has given LSU a lot of chances to win since he set foot on campus back in the fall of 2011 – 27 games, to be exact. Whether this was his final game at Alex Box or not remains to be seen, but his presence alone is what makes LSU a dangerous opponent come postseason.
“Looking back at that last inning, I had to take some deep breathes and calm myself down,” he said. “I’m definitely going to miss this place.”