The good son and the prodigal son both played key roles for the LSU Tigers on Friday night against South Carolina.
There is the son LSU coach Paul Mainieri would probably like to adopt, starting pitcher Aaron Nola. Then there is the son Mainieri would probably like to take over his knee in the back of the dugout, second baseman JaCoby Jones, except that in the post-Mike Rice era, such corporal coaching is not going to go over well anywhere with management.
Nola has become the rock upon which this 2013 LSU baseball season is being built. Friday night, he turned in yet another gem of a pitching performance. Not as dominant perhaps as his complete-game victory at Arkansas two weeks ago, or his three-hit shutout at Alabama last week, but against the No. 10-ranked Gamecocks, Nola once again was a lawnmower, slicing through the South Carolina order with five 1-2-3 innings, saving the bullpen for two more crucial weekend games as he ran his personal record to 8-0.
He twirled his third straight complete game, a feat not accomplished by an LSU pitcher, amazingly enough, since 2005.
Nola may not be as overpowering as Friday night starter Kevin Gausman was last year before he became a first-round pick by the Baltimore Orioles, but he has been just as steady a force. The Tigers lost only two games that Gausman started last season. Friday’s 5-2 victory made LSU 11-0 in games which Nola has started this season.
That’s the kind of consistency that wins you championships, gets you national seeds, gets you to Omaha for the College World Series. That’s somewhere the Tigers even with Gausman didn’t get to last season, somewhere LSU hasn’t been since 2009.
But certainly not every batter Nola faces will be a strikeout. Not every game will be a shutout. He needs teammates to have his back, to field, to throw, to hit.
He needs Jones.
Jones’ talent, maybe the best in college baseball, is undeniable to say the least. His play is mercurial at best. At Alabama last Sunday, Jones committed a costly error and neglected to run out a grounder that earned him a seat on the Tigers’ bench. An infrared spectrographic analysis of Mainieri that day would have revealed a small but steady column of steam rising from the top of his purple LSU baseball cap.
Jones didn’t start Wednesday against Tulane but played the last three innings, leaving Mainieri to play coy over whether he would start him Friday. Start Jones did and he played well, reaching base three times with a pair of hits and scoring a first-inning run.
Baseball people will tell you Jones has first-round potential, but he’s one of those loose-as-a-goose baseball talents who don’t seem to always appreciate the full measure of their abilities. If Jones had Alex Bregman’s focus, his drive, his desire, he might not merely be a first-rounder but the first player taken.
Perhaps the lessons of the last week will take hold with Jones.
It needs to. LSU needs him as much as Nola, at times more.
Nola, for all his worth, only takes the mound once a week.
Jones can and should play every day.