Late in Game 1 of the 2013 NCAA Baton Rouge Super Regional versus Oklahoma, then sophomore pitcher Aaron Nola looked over to former Tiger first baseman Mason Katz and said, “If we score, we are going to win.” In the eighth inning, junior JaCoby Jones blasted a triple to the right-centerfield gap, and a pinch-hit double by Tyler Moore knocked Jones in for the first run of the ball game.
“That might have been the best feeling I’ve had at LSU so far,” Nola said. “I knew it was going to be a pitching matchup because (former Oklahoma ace Jonathan Gray) is one of the best pitchers in the country, obviously going third overall in the draft. I think everyone knew that. It was just a matter of who would score the first run.”
The Tigers scored two runs in the eighth, and LSU won in front of a record-breaking 11,095 at Alex Box Stadium, Skip Bertman Field while Nola worked a brilliant two-hit shutout. The Tigers concluded the 2013 season by falling short of a national championship in the College World Series, but in just two seasons Nola has cemented himself as one of the most prolific pitchers in LSU history.
As a freshman, the Baton Rouge native notched a 7-4 record with a 3.61 ERA while rounding out the weekend rotation, serving as a compliment to 2012 No. 4 overall draft pick Kevin Gausman and 2013 second round, No. 43 overall draft pick Ryan Eades. Nola gained notoriety quickly, being deemed a 2012 First-Team Freshman All-American by Collegiate Baseball and Perfect Game.
Nola credits much of his freshman success to his brother and former Tiger shortstop, Austin Nola.
“I learned a lot from my brother,” Aaron said. “He’s impacted me a lot over the years. He’s taught me a lot of stuff, especially playing one year at LSU with him. He taught me how to play the game. He taught me some things here and there about leadership. I followed his lead.”
As a sophomore, Nola emerged as the Friday starter with Eades following on Saturday, with sophomore Cody Glenn working as the Sunday starter on most weekends. Nola pitched his way into the NCAA Top 10 in four statistical categories, finishing 10th in strikeout-to-walk ratio (6.78), eighth in wins (12), third in shutouts (three) and second in walks-plus-hits per innings pitched (0.8).
The First-Team All-American’s 12-1 record led his pitching staff to an NCAA-best win-loss percentage (57-11, .838), and the Tigers were No. 3 in earned run average (2.40). Nola’s masterful performances also garnered 2013 SEC Pitcher of the Year honors, the 2013 Corbett Award (Best Amateur Athlete in Louisiana) and finalist recognition for the 2013 National Pitcher of the Year award.
Eighth-year LSU coach Paul Mainieri acknowledges that his Friday starter had magnificent numbers last season but believes Nola has utilized this offseason to reach new heights.
“Believe it or not, he is better,” Mainieri said. “I don’t know if his numbers will be better, I’m not sure they can be, but he’s older with another year of experience under his belt. He is stronger. I think he’ll hold his velocity deeper into the games. His curveball is a little bit tighter. The changeup is a little more deceptive with better arm action. He’s still got the great command.
“I don’t see any reason why he won’t go out there and give us a chance to win every time he pitches. I’ve coached for 32 years. He is right up there with the top pitchers I’ve coached, and it’s been a blessing to have him.”
Nola and Glenn return as juniors to spearhead the 2014 starting rotation. The pitching staff will be in rebuilding mode after losing eight pitchers who logged a combined 306.2 innings, or 49 percent of innings pitched last year.
“Those guys were here for a couple of years,” Nola said. “They knew how to win and how to put our team in positions to best win a game. It was tough letting them go, but we have a lot of new guys this year that are going to step up for us. Once they get on the mound once or twice, they are going to love it, get in the feel of things and be successful for us. They are going to help our team win. Our pitching coach, Alan Dunn, always says, ‘If the other team scores, go throw up a “zero.”’ That will win you games.”
Nola and his pitching staff are planning to throw many “zeroes” to lead their Tiger baseball squad to a second consecutive College World Series appearance with one ultimate goal in mind: Bringing the title back to Baton Rouge.