HOOVER, Ala. -- A 75-mile-per-hour breaking pitch freezes the right-handed hitting Joe Serrano of Arkansas, appearing inside and dropping in late on the inside corner. Follow up that with a 94-mile-per-hour fastball that hits the same spot, and Serrano can’t help but watch. Another fastball, this one on the outside corner and Serrano swings, but can’t catch up to it.
It looks that easy – strike one, strike two, strike three. That was the 14th hitter in a row Aaron Nola, a junior right-handed pitcher, retired in the eighth-ranked Tigers’ 7-2 win against Arkansas in the SEC tournament on Thursday. It was one of Nola's seven strikeouts, and the only one in which a Razorback went down swinging.
It turned into a typical dominating Nola start, but it didn’t look so easy at first. Nola, the Tigers’ ace and an expected high pick in June’s Major League Baseball first-year player draft, totaled 7.1 innings, giving up two runs on five hits to lead his team to the SEC semifinals. Of his 110 pitches, 74 were strikes. But Nola struggled in the first inning, by his standards, surrendering two hits and one run, which scored when the catcher’s throw to second to nab a runner trying to advance on a throw home went into center field.
Nola is right, if by “a couple zeroes” he meant six. Nola’s ability to settle into a groove and recover from a rocky start, according to LSU head coach Paul Mainieri, is what makes him so hard to beat. It’s not just his stuff or his talent, but in Louisiana they call it “lagniappe – something a little extra.”
“This, to me, shows the true greatness of Nola,” Mainieri said. “He’s had plenty of games where he’s just dominated. … But when he gets in jams, he just has that innate ability to raise his game to another level, and that’s really what he did there in the first inning.”
Arkansas got the one, but that would be all until the eighth inning. Hitters looked lost, going down looking six times as Nola cruised through the middle innings.
“We knew that he would settle in, because that’s what he does,” Arkansas head coach Dave Van Horn said. “If you get a chance to get him you’ve got to get him right out of the chute. … He’s tough, and that’s why he’s 10-1 and one of the top pitchers in the country. He knows how to pitch when he’s in trouble.”
The career accolades and numbers speak for themselves with Nola. Last season he was a first-team All-American and the SEC pitcher of the year. Having not even completed his third season in Baton Rouge, Nola entered Thursday’s game third on LSU’s all-time strikeouts list with 331. He led the SEC and was fourth in the country in strikeouts with 120 and was No. 2 in the conference with a 1.42 ERA.
“He’s one of the greats of all time, certainly at LSU and in my coaching career,” Mainieri said.
Nola came in to the SEC tournament on a hot streak. Last week, he struck out nine in a one-run, seven-inning outing at Auburn. The week before, he tossed a complete-game shutout against Alabama. The only time LSU lost a game this season in which Nola took the mound was a 2-1 loss to Florida on March 29.
Mainieri said that he knew Nola was special the first time he saw his command and his fastball-changeup combination in high school. Nola was drafted out of Catholic High School in Baton Rouge, where he was named Louisiana’s Mr. Baseball, in the 22nd round by the Toronto Blue Jays. But he passed on that option to join his brother Austin, an All-American shortstop, at the hometown school. The younger Nola made 16 starts in his freshman year, accumulating a 3.61 ERA and 89 strikeouts with just seven walks. Nola was the Game 1 starter for the Tigers in postseason play as a freshman.
Then came his breakout sophomore season, where Nola became one of three finalists for national pitcher of the year thanks to his 12-1 record, 1.57 ERA and 112 strikeouts. This season, he’s found a way to bring that ERA even lower and the strikeout total even higher. Nola has developed an excellent slider that usually sits in the mid-80s with a upper-70s changeup and low-to-mid-90s fastball.
“I’ve run out of things to talk about with this kid.” Mainieri said. “Every time he pitches it seems like he outdoes himself.
“You’re talking about a three-pitch guy who’s going to be able to be very successful in the major leagues.”
When Nola exited the game on Thursday having surrendered one run (his second came in on a sacrifice fly by the next batter), the large and loud contingent of LSU fans at Hoover Metropolitan Stadium gave him a rousing standing ovation. They know their time watching him pitch is probably nearing an end, and they are soaking up every moment of it. If all goes according to plan for the Tigers, he’ll get at least a couple more chances to pitch this season. And when he does, opponents will need to heed Nola’s “lagniappe.”