Arkansas comes up aces in showdown with LSU

HOOVER, Ala. — The battle between LSU’s Aaron Nola and Arkansas’ Ryne Stanek lived up to the expectations borne of both pitchers’ outstanding seasons.

They matched each other pitch for pitch, inning for inning in a Southeastern Conference tournament winners bracket game that was tied at 1 through seven innings. But when Nola left the game an inning earlier than Stanek, that made the difference.

Stanek limited the Tigers to one unearned run and six hits through eight innings, lowering his ERA to 1.29. He walked three and struck out four.

Nola held the Razorbacks to one run and six hits in seven innings, walking one and striking out eight. He came away with his fourth no-decision to go with his 10 wins in 14 starts as he lowered his ERA to 1.90.

“When Nola came out, we kind of jumped on them a little bit and got some timely hits,” said the Razorbacks’ Tyler Spoon, who had three hits, including a squeeze bunt single that drove in the tie-breaking run in the eighth inning of Arkansas’ 4-1 victory Thursday night at Hoover Metropolitan Stadium.

Arkansas (37-19) advanced to the semifinals Saturday afternoon. LSU (49-9), which won its tourney opener 3-0 against Alabama on Wednesday, will face the Crimson Tide again in an elimination game at 3 p.m. Friday.

Pitching for the first time since May 10 after getting a rest to prepare for the postseason, Nola needed 108 pitches to get through seven innings.

“I felt good,” he said. “My body and mind were refreshed. I just didn’t have my fastball command like I usually do.”

Joey Bourgeois relieved Nola to start the eighth and allowed a leadoff single to Matt Vinson. After Brian Anderson flied to right, Dominic Ficociello singled to move Vinson to third.

Nick Rumbelow relieved Bourgeois, and Spoon dropped down a bunt up the first-base line. Rumbelow fielded the ball but couldn’t get it to catcher Ty Ross before Vinson crossed the plate.

The Razorbacks added two runs in the eighth. Kurt McCune started the inning, and Eric Fisher led off with a single. Brrett McAfee sacrificed pinch runner Jacob Morris to second.

McCune struck out Jake Wise before Will LaMarche relived. Morris stole third, and Joe Serrano beat out a dribbler to LaMarche to make it 3-1. Serrano stole second, went to third on a wild pitch and scored as Vinson beat out a bunt.

“I don’t think I’ve ever seen so many squeeze bunts,” LSU coach Paul Mainieri said.

Colby Suggs pitched a perfect ninth for his 12th save, but Stanek (9-2) had just two perfect innings, the first and the eighth. In between, the Tigers had nine base runners, but just one scored.

“We had some opportunities, but we couldn’t take advantage of them,” LSU outfielder Raph Rhymes said. “Stanek was great all night. That’s why we got beat.”

LSU took a 1-0 lead in the second, and Nola kept it through four, allowing one base runner in each inning. In the fifth, No. 9 hitter Jean Ramirez singled, and Serrano followed with a double to left-center that tied the score.

Nola yielded a two-out single in the sixth, then finished with his only 1-2-3 inning of the game in the seventh.

“I thought Nola was fantastic,” Mainieri said. “His command wasn’t quite as good on his fastball, and so he wasn’t quite as efficient as we’re used to. That ran up his pitch count. If he could have pitched eight innings like Stanek did, we might still be playing.”

LSU scratched out a run against Stanek with two outs in the third. Sean McMullen singled, and Mark Laird singled him to second. Alex Bregman hit a grounder to the left of second base, and shortstop Brett McAfee charged the ball. Instead of throwing to first, he flipped the ball to his side, trying to get the force, and missed second baseman Ficociello. The error allowed McMullen to score.

Stanek got himself into two-out trouble in the fourth when he walked the bottom third of the LSU order to load the bases before getting McMullen to fly to center.

“I feel like I was trying to be really fine,” Stanek said. “Then I got behind and tried to make too good of pitches. Then I was feeling for it a bit instead of just pounding the zone like I was pretty much every other inning. I nibbled, missed and wasn’t being efficient.”

The inefficiency was short-lived. Mason Katz singled with two outs in the fifth, Tyler Moore singled with one out in the sixth and Bregman singled with two out in the seventh, but Stanek stranded all three.

“I think if you take out the fourth inning where he walked three in a row and threw 20 extra pitches, I thought he had one of his better outings of the year,” Razorbacks coach Dave Van Horn said. “He’s strong as an ox.”

In three starts against LSU in the past two seasons, Stanek is 2-0 and has allowed just 16 hits and one earned run in 21.2 innings. He has walked seven and struck out 19.

“I’ve about seen enough of him,” Mainieri said. “Stanek is really good; he’s about ready for the big leagues. He was throwing a lot of off-speed pitches when he was behind in counts. That surprised us. We thought he would challenge us a little bit more.

“When you have a guy who throws that hard and he keeps you guessing, that’s a big advantage. He was the story of the game.”