HOOVER, Ala. — On the night that Kevin Gausman made his major league debut, Aaron Nola turned in the latest in a season-long series of Gausman-like outings.
It didn’t matter that LSU lost for the first time this season in the 14 starts that Nola has made as Arkansas prevailed 4-1 in the Southeastern Conference baseball tournament Thursday.
Nola and his Razorbacks counterpart, soon-to-be-first-round-draft-choice Ryne Stanek, put on the type of duel that was expected from two of the elite pitchers in college baseball.
Stanek lasted longer than Nola, pitching eight innings to Nola’s seven, and got his ninth win when his teammates scored three runs against the Tigers’ bullpen.
Pitching for the first time since May 10, Nola allowed a run on six hits in seven innings as he lowered his ERA to 1.90.
The only nit that could be picked was that he needed 108 pitches to get through seven innings. That was pretty much what he averaged in throwing four straight complete games earlier this season.
Chalk up that minor slip in efficiency to rust as Nola continues to be everything to LSU that Gausman was last season, when he was the first pitcher drafted before making his lickety-split rise to the majors in Baltimore.
Fortunately for the Tigers, Nola isn’t old enough to be drafted after his sophomore season the way Gausman was last year, so they get him for another year.
But now all that matters is this postseason. That’s why coach Paul Mainieri wisely chose to let Nola take a break in the final regular-season series last week.
Nola’s performance Thursday reinforced the notion that he’s ready to give Mainieri everything Gausman gave him last year.
The Tigers’ loss Thursday made things harder for them in terms of winning this tournament, but let’s face it: For LSU, this is merely a rehearsal for the NCAA tournament.
In fact, even though the players’ and coaches’ competitive drives would never allow them to appreciate it, the loss to the Razorbacks was more useful to NCAA preparation than a win would have been.
Getting Friday off and perhaps coasting into the final, maybe even sidestepping top-seeded and already once-beaten Vanderbilt, wouldn’t have honed the Tigers for the postseason.
It’s better to have Ryan Eades accept the challenge of an elimination-game start, which he’ll do against Alabama on Friday.
It’s better, if they advance to the weekend, to see how Brent Bonvillain or Kurt McCune or maybe even freshman Hunter Newman handle themselves in a no-margin-for-error situation.
It’s better to have a dry run through the losers bracket because you may face an uphill climb in the Baton Rouge regional or the super regional or the College World Series.
“Now it’s win or go home,” outfielder Raph Rhymes said. “This is when it gets fun. This is when guys pull closer together. No one said it would be easy. We look forward to it.”
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