Aaron Nola paces LSU past Houston 5-1

The hits keep coming.

And so do the wins.

Ace Aaron Nola pitched a four-hit gem, and LSU continued to roar offensively in a 5-1 win over Houston on Saturday night in a pivotal duel in the Baton Rouge regional.

The Tigers (46-14-1) claimed a 10th straight win in front of a jam-packed Alex Box Stadium. They haven’t lost in 21 days.

This victory may have been the most important one of them all. Coach Paul Mainieri’s team must win just one of a possible two games to claim the regional championship and advance to a third straight super regional. They’ll meet the Southeastern Louisiana/Houston winner at 7 p.m. Sunday. Those teams meet at 2 p.m. Sunday.

The No. 8 national seed in the NCAA tournament, LSU belted 12 hits — 10 against Houston starter Jake Lemoine, who entered the game with a 2.35 ERA.

Andrew Stevenson had three hits, and Conner Hale drove in two runs as the Tigers broke a 1-1 tie with a two-run third inning. They added two more in the seventh inning, extending the lead and inciting massive roars from the 10,436, the fifth-largest Alex Box of all time.

“We are just seeing the ball really well right now,” designated hitter Sean McMullen said. “It doesn’t matter if it’s a curveball, fastball or changeup.”

Nola (11-1) struck out seven in a 7.1-inning stint, recovering from a shaky second. Nola allowed three hits in the inning and loaded the bases with a walk. He limited the damage, though, giving up just one run.

Nola threw a whopping 45 pitches in the first two innings.

“When he had that (28-pitch) second inning, I’m saying to myself, ‘Boy, we’re going to be fortunate to get five innings of him tonight,’ ” Mainieri said.

Nola retired 17 of his final 18 batters, only allowing a line-drive single in the fifth inning.

So what happened?

“The changeup was really key for him,” Mainieri said. “All of the sudden you look up, and he’s still pitching after seven innings. That was a real key aspect of the game; (pitching coach Alan Dunn) went to the changeup a lot.”

Nola left to a standing ovation from a rowdy crowd on a windswept and cloudy night. They’ve seen it all before.

LSU has won its past 20 home games that Nola started, and the ace from Baton Rouge’s Catholic High has allowed just four earned runs in six NCAA postseason games.

“He’s just one of the most amazing competitors I’ve ever been around,” Mainieri said.

“Our goal is to get Aaron Nola one more start in Alex Box Stadium,” shortstop Alex Bregman said.

The hitters backed up their pitcher for the 10th straight game.

LSU now has 136 hits over this wild, 10-game winning streak, one that began after a 5-1 loss to Alabama on May 10. The Tigers have outscored those 10 opponents 100-13, and they’re in great position to win a fifth straight home regional.

Including a wild, 8-4 regional-opening win over Southeastern Louisiana, the Tigers have used just three relievers. Kyle Bouman (5-2, 2.34 ERA) will get the start. He won his previous two starts — at Auburn and against Arkansas in the SEC tournament semifinals.

Just last year, Bouman was searching for scholarship offers after spending his sophomore season at a Missouri junior college. He’ll be starting in a regional final Sunday night.

“I would have never expected it. It’s awesome,” Bouman said. “Got my family here to watch it. It’s going to be a fun night.”

On Saturday, LSU took a 3-1 lead in the third inning after three straight hits. Mark Laird began the inning by walking before Jake Fraley, Sean McMullen and Hale had one-out knocks.

The Tigers got RBI singles form Laird and shortstop Alex Bregman in the seventh to go up 5-1.

Meanwhile, Nola kept LSU in the game by limiting the damage in that rough second inning.

Houston tied the score at 1 in the second on Michael Pyeatt’s two-out single to center. Nola then loaded the bases with a walk of No. 9 hitter Landon Appling before Bregman made a diving catch in foul territory to end the inning.

Bregman made the dive on a full sprint behind third base. He caught the ball, hit the ground and then popped off the turf to one of the loudest booms of the night.

The Box came alive, and the score remained 1-1.

“Unbelievable catch. Kind of reminded me of Austin Nola a little bit,” Aaron Nola said, referencing his brother, the former second-team All-America shortstop for LSU.

For a second straight night, the relievers shined.

Zac Person and Joe Broussard handled the final 1.2 scoreless innings, leading the Tigers to a rousing win over a team that entered the regional ranked No. 10 in the RPI.

Houston (45-16) had won 12 of its previous 14. And now the Tigers are another step closer to reaching the College World Series for the second straight season.

“Players know clearly once the NCAA tournament starts, you’re five wins away from Omaha,” Mainieri said. “We’re basically counting them off now. That’s two down and three to go.”