Aaron Nola dominant again as LSU beats USC, 5-2

Aaron Nola did what is becoming typical of him, and several of his teammates did more than has been typical.

Nola threw his third consecutive complete game in No. 2 LSU’s 5-2 victory against No. 10 South Carolina on Friday night at Alex Box Stadium.

The Tigers (39-4, 16-3 Southeastern Conference) improved to 11-0 in games Nola has started this season. The Gamecocks are 31-12 and 11-8 heading into game two of the series, set for 6:30 p.m. Saturday.

“I guess we can call Friday night in the SEC the Aaron Nola Show,” Tigers coach Paul Mainieri said. “I don’t know what else to say about him. He’s just amazing. For a while there, I thought he was going to throw a no-hitter.”

Nola (8-0), who threw his first career shutout at Alabama last week and his first complete game at Arkansas the week before that, retired the first 10 batters and allowed single runs in the fifth and the ninth. He gave up six hits and no walks and struck out eight.

Much of the offense came from the bottom third of the order, which went 6 for 10, making up for an 0-for-9 night from the middle third. Leadoff hitter Sean McMullen was the primary run producer, driving in three.

“The bottom of the order was fantastic,” Mainieri said. “That says something about the balance in your lineup.”

Nola became the first LSU pitcher to throw three consecutive complete games since Greg Smith did it in 2005.

The Gamecocks’ first threat came in the fourth, when Chase Vergason got a one-out single and one out later LB Dantzler was hit by a pitch. Nola got out of it when Max Schrock grounded to short and Alex Bregman flipped to JaCoby Jones for a force at second.

Nola got the first two outs in the fifth before Connor Bright singled. Tanner English hit a line drive into left-center, and Mark Laird dived late and missed the ball, which got past him.

Bright scored as Rhymes ran down the ball and threw to Bregman, whose relay to Ross cut down English at the plate, preserving LSU’s 3-1 lead.

“That was huge for us,” Nola said. “Who knows how long that inning could have gone?”

That ended a streak of 15 scoreless innings for Nola. He gave up two two-out singles in the sixth before getting Max Schrock to ground out.

Nola retired the side in the order in the seventh and eighth before Joey Pankake led off the ninth with his ninth homer of the season, making it 5-2.

“I missed my spot there,” Nola said. “It was right down the middle, and he put a good swing on it.”

Nola was unfazed and got the last three batters in order, finishing at 112 pitches. He outdueled South Carolina ace Nolan Belcher (6-4), who gave up seven hits and four runs in 5.2 innings.

“Aaron Nola was the story of the game,” South Carolina coach Chad Holbrook said. “He’s as good as it gets. Nolan battled and tried to keep us in the game, he just didn’t have his normal command. (LSU has) a very balanced, very strong, physical team, and they played perfect baseball tonight.”

McMullen went 2 for 3 with a double, a two-run single and a sacrifice fly. He also was hit by a pitch and scored a run.

Ross went 2 for 3 with an RBI in the sixth spot. Jones retuned from a brief benching to go 2 for 3 and score a run, and Jared Foster, making his third start and first in SEC play, went 2 for 4 in the No. 9 spot.

“The top of the order has been carrying us all year,” Jones said. “The bottom third has struggled at times, but tonight was big for us because we know if the top of the order is going to do the job and we do ours, it makes it a lot easier.”

McMullen led off the game for LSU with a double, and Laird’s groundout moved McMullen to third, but Alex Bregman struck out and Mason Katz lined to right.

The first two Tigers went out in the second as Raph Rhymes and Christian Ibarra both struck out, but the bottom third of the order set up McMullen. Ross and Jones walked, Foster singled to load the bases and McMullen singled home two.

“I’m feeling comfortable in the box and seeing the ball well,” Ross said. “I think my biggest at-bat was that two-out walk that put their pitcher in stretch and got us going. I was just trying to battle and at least run up his pitch count.”

The bottom third started a rally again in the fourth. Ross led off with a single, and Jones and Foster followed with singles to load the bases. McMullen’s sacrifice fly made it 3-0.

“Momentum is hard to stop,” McMullen said, “and Foster kept our momentum going. Every time I went up, I had a lot of confidence.”

The Tigers had another two-out rally in the sixth. McMullen was hit by a pitch, and Laird singled him to third. Right-hander Patrick Sullivan relieved Belcher and gave up an RBI single to Bregman to make it 4-1.

LSU added an unearned run in the seventh. Rhymes led off with a grounder to third that Vergason threw away, sending Rhymes to second. Ibarra sacrificed Rhymes to third, and Ross singled him home.