LSU sophomore right-hander Aaron Nola wasn’t at his best in his first start of the Southeastern Conference baseball season last week at Mississippi State.
Nola gave up a season-high nine hits — almost double his previous high (five) — and did so in his shortest outing (5.2 innings).
The level of competition — then-No. 11 Mississippi State on the road — had something to with it, but Nola admitted to “not having my ‘A’ game.”
“I left the ball up last weekend,” Nola said before practice Thursday. “That’s why I got hit around a good bit.”
After getting the first out in the first inning, he gave up a soft single, threw a wild pitch and yielded a two-run homer.
“I’ve got to stay more
focused in the first inning,” Nola said. “The first inning is really big for me. My mentality is that I have to go all out in the first inning. That’s the tone-setter for the game.”
Nola will try to set a better tone when he starts against Auburn in the opener of a three-game series Friday night in Alex Box Stadium.
After the first inning at State, Nola threw three consecutive scoreless innings, then gave up two more runs in the fifth. He got two outs in the sixth before leaving.
“He’s going to have a lot of starts and it’s a long season,” catcher Ty Ross said. “It’s hard to be perfect. The game of baseball is all about consistency. So far he has been one of our most consistent guys. He didn’t have his best stuff, but he still battled. Mississippi State came out swinging.”
The Tigers, who trailed 4-1 when Nola left the game, came back to tie the score in the
seventh and won in the 10th.
“I thought Aaron settled in and pitched OK,” LSU coach Paul Mainieri said. “Aaron just got off to a bad start. He gave up a bloop over the third baseman, and then he hung curveball and threw a really bad pitch against a good hitter.”
Nola, who was 7-4 with a 3.61 ERA as a freshman last season, is 2-0 with a 3.41 ERA this year. Mississippi State is the only team to score in more than one inning against Nola in his five starts this season.
“The command was not typical Aaron Nola command, and a couple of pitches missed their spots, and when you do that in this league, good hitters are going to make you pay for it,” pitching coach Alan Dunn said. “But I don’t want Aaron to do anything different than he’s been doing. It’s just a matter of commanding and hitting his spots a little more consistently than he did last week.”
Nola has allowed runs in just five of his 31.2 innings.
In the season opener against Maryland, he threw 6.2 scoreless innings. Against BYU, he gave up four runs in the third inning of a six-inning stint.
Against Brown, he allowed just one unearned, first-inning run in a seven-inning outing. Against Washington, he threw six scoreless innings, then got just one out in the seventh while giving up four runs.
“Aaron is a strike thrower,” Dunn said. “He’s a quick worker, he’s very aggressive in the strike zone, and he’s been
doing that. There’s no such thing as throwing too many strikes — never. If you’re going to go out and throw strikes, you’re going to put the hitters in a defensive mode. When you get ahead, then you’ve got to make your put-away pitches.”
Nola has walked just five batters and has struck out 36. Last season, he walked just seven and struck out 89 in 89.2 innings.
“He’s a guy that lives on the plate,” Ross said. “Sometimes you have to work more toward the corners with a team that likes to come out swinging.
“He’s so accurate. We’ve talked about maybe setting up more off the plate and doing different things to where we can use his accuracy in a more effective way than just being so middle. Because he throws so many strikes, sometimes he needs to throw a ball and change the hitter’s eye level a little more.”
Against Auburn, Nola will be facing a team that has hit just five home runs, is batting .269 and scored a total of nine runs while being swept by Vanderbilt last weekend. Only one of the runs came in the first three innings.
“We’re going to have to break out and score some runs early,” Auburn coach John Pawlowski said. “We’ve got to take advantage of our
opportunities. We had some opportunities to score some runs and we didn’t take advantage of them.”
Mainieri said he’s confident Nola will pitch better this week than he did last week.
“I think Aaron is going to be fine,” Mainieri said. “If my biggest concern is Aaron Nola, I’m in really good shape because he’s not a kid I worry about. I think he’ll pitch a really good game.”
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