HOOVER, Ala. — LSU coach Paul Mainieri’s approach to the start of the Southeastern Conference baseball tournament is to not mess with a good thing.
The top-seeded Tigers went undefeated in 14 midweek games this season, and Mainieri plans to stick with his midweek pitching-by-committee approach to their tourney opener against Mississippi State at approximately 12:30 p.m. Wednesday. Freshman right-hander Aaron Nola will start but pitch no more than two innings before Mainieri starts a parade out of the bullpen that could have a half dozen or so relievers follow Nola to the mound.
“We’re going to treat Wednesday kind of like we treated midweek games all year and really bust it up with the pitching staff and give all the relief pitchers a short stint and try to keep them off balance and pick matchups we like throughout the game,” Mainieri said. “We want to get as many guys out there to get their feet wet in postseason play, including the freshman starting pitcher.”
Nola (6-4, 4.03 ERA) made his first collegiate start in a midweek game when he pitched at McNeese State on Feb. 29 and got a victory, pitching five innings and allowing six hits and three runs in a 19-10 triumph. Six days later he started at Tulane in a midweek game and threw a three-hit shutout over eight innings to get his second victory as the Tigers defeated the Green Wave 5-0.
He started and pitched two scoreless innings to get the victory in his final midweek start, a 13-0 victory against Northwestern State on March 14 before moving into the weekend rotation.
Nola will be facing Mississippi State, which presents a more formidable challenge than a typical regular-season midweek opponent, for the second time. He made his weekend debut against the Bulldogs in the first SEC series of the season March 18. State rocked him in the first inning as the first four batters reached base and he gave up five hits and five runs. He then pitched four scoreless innings before giving up an unearned run in the sixth, his final inning.
LSU’s No. 1 starter, sophomore right-hander Kevin Gausman, likely would have started Wednesday if his final regular-season start hadn’t been pushed back from last Thursday to Friday because of a rainout at South Carolina.
Gausman will start LSU’s second game Thursday and if the Tigers play a third game, sophomore right-hander Ryan Eades will start that one, which could come Friday or Saturday depending on the outcomes over the next couple of days. Nola’s short stint on Wednesday would enable him to start in the championship game Sunday afternoon if LSU advances that far.
None of the three starting pitchers has participated in an SEC tournament, nor have several position players. The Tigers didn’t qualify for the tournament last season after winning it the previous three seasons.
“The other guys don’t know what it’s like to play in the SEC tournament,” outfielder/first baseman Mason Katz said. “It’s a huge thing playing in their first post-season. This is what we worked for all last year and this year.”
LSU (42-14 and 19-11 in the SEC) is ranked No. 2 in two polls after winning its first outright overall SEC title since 2003. The Tigers will almost certainly host a regional next weekend and seem to be in strong position to earn one of the eight national seeds and potentially host a super regional before it even takes the field here.
“We want to win every game,” Katz said. “We accomplished the goal of winning the SEC regular season, and it’s a great honor. We’re very proud of what we did in the regular season, but our (main) goal is Omaha. We’re moving toward that.
“The SEC tournament is very tough, but we’re going to do our best to win the ‘LSU Invitational’, so to speak, and do our job to keep that name going then move forward toward our ultimate goal.”
The only two times LSU has failed to win this tournament in Mainieri’s previous five seasons were the two years the Tigers failed to qualify for the tourney. They’re 13-1 in the three tourneys they’ve won under him.
“When we’ve gone, we’ve played well,” Mainieri said. “Six ranked teams are going to be there ,and you don’t find that in any other tournament. The competition level is unbelievable and the teams know each other so well. There are really no secrets so you have to go out there and do it on the field.”
Shortstop Austin Nola, along with fellow four-year seniors Tyler Hanover, Grant Dozar and Beau Didier, has a chance to be part of a third SEC tournament champion.
“We treat this tournament like the last games we’ll ever play and every game means the world,” Nola said. “That’s why we’re all smiles when we play. The competition here is unbelievable. Some of the best teams in the country are right here next to you. You have a chance to play against the best teams in the country and win an SEC championship. Winning it means a lot.”
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