Of all of the players on the 2014 LSU baseball team, there may be none more stir-crazed than junior pitcher Aaron Nola.
After last season’s end, many of the returning players dispersed across the country to play in various summer baseball leagues. It appeared Nola was going to be joining fellow-Tiger Alex Bregman with the United States Collegiate National Team, but, at the last minute, he decided to give his prized right arm a much-needed summer vacation.
Now well rested, Nola is raring to go as the upcoming season looms.
“I’m really ready to get back out on the mound,” he said, cracking a grin. “It’s been too long since last year.”
If anybody was sad to see the calendar year go from 2013 to 2014, it had to have Nola. Last season, the right-hander turned in one of the best statistical seasons in the program’s history as the Tiger’s strike zone pumping Friday night ace.
But in its infancy, the new year has been kind to Nola so far. As he prepares for his junior season at LSU, many baseball scouts are salivating at what possibilities the Baton Rouge native may produce in his third year for LSU.
According to MLB.com, Nola rates as the fourth best collegiate pitcher, and the eleventh best prospect overall, for the 2014 Major League Baseball Draft.
Basically what that means is, unless something tragic occurs, this will be Nola’s last season playing at Alex Box Stadium, Skip Bertman Field.
Be that as it may, the Catholic High product is not ready to lay his cards out for all to see just yet.
“It’s actually not on my mind at all,” Nola said of the upcoming draft. “I haven’t even thrown one pitch yet for my junior season. The draft is far away, so I’m just preparing for this season.”
Having a highly touted pitching prospect is nothing new for LSU head coach Paul Mainieri. It takes just a quick look back to 2012, when right-hander Kevin Gausman was selected by the Baltimore Orioles with the fourth overall pick, after he posted 135 strikeouts and a 12-2 record as a sophomore.
Two seasons before that, Anthony Ranaudo was selected by the Boston Red Sox, with a compensatory pick between rounds one and two of the draft.
“We always talk to our players about how to have the whole concept of professional baseball in the proper perspective,” Mainieri explained. “The best thing kids can do to enhance their status and be ready to play at the next level is to perform well for LSU.”
Nola needs no convincing when it comes to winning games on the mound. Of the 33 games he has started in his two years at LSU, Nola has earned 19 wins – with most coming last season, when he posted a team-best 12-1 record.
His winning record is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to describing his 2013 season.
Despite pitching in a career-high 126 innings, Nola walked just 18 batters while striking out 122. He posted a .188 opposing batting average and a 1.57 earned run average. That made it no surprise when he was named the 2013 SEC Pitcher of the Year and a First-Team All-American selection by multiple outlets.
Just as he was last season, Nola will likely be the Tiger’s opening night starter when they begin the 2014 campaign against UNO on February 14th.
“It means a lot that coach and my team have confidence in me,” said Nola. “It’s definitely an honor to open the season with myself on the mound, and it’s just a fun experience.”
From a scouting standpoint, Nola does not exactly possess pitching tools that stand out right away. His fastball sits in the low nineties to go along with a changeup and a decent breaking ball.
What makes him special is his ability to pinpoint where he wants the ball to go at any moment in any game.
“You have to pound the strike zone because walks are never a good thing,” explained Nola. “I’ve always been accurate, so when I pound the strike zone, good things can happen.”
Those good things were apparent to Mainieri and pitching coach Alan Dunn the moment Nola stepped on the LSU campus. As a freshman, he worked his way into the weekend pitching rotation behind Gausman and Ryan Eades. All he did that season was simply strike out 89 hitters, allowing only seven walks, in 89.2 innings of work.
The semi-blemishes of his freshman campaign were that opponents hit for a .251 average off him. And he gave up nine home runs – the most of any LSU pitcher that season.
Nola’s problem was that he pounded the strike zone too much as a freshman, but Dunn remedied that in the following offseason.
“This is kind of weird to say, but I threw too many strikes in my freshman year and I got hit around a little bit,” Nola mentioned. “In working with coach Dunn, he taught me how to move the ball out of the strike zone when I needed to.”
Because he did not play much baseball this past offseason, Nola’s goals for improvement were more mental than physical.
His lone loss of 2013 unfortunately came at the most inopportune time – against UCLA in the College World Series. Two days later, LSU was eliminated without registering a win. Nola’s finger remained ring-less, while his brother Austin – who won a national championship as the Tigers’ starting shortstop in 2009 – has a nice shiny one to show off.
“He always teases me about that,” he recalled. “I don’t have a national championship ring and he does.”
In what could be his last season, Nola knows that 2014 is probably his last chance to capture the national championship. However, there is a 56 game regular season schedule, the SEC Tournament, regionals, super regionals and five or six wins in Omaha standing in Nola’s way to LSU’s seventh national title.
And just like his professional baseball future, he knows that nothing is guaranteed.
“Our goal is always to get to Omaha and win it,” he explained. “The hard part is that you just have to take it one game at a time.”