Aaron Nola’s fastball baffles batters

Advocate staff photo by BILL FEIG -- LSU pitcher Aaron Nola finished with a 12-1 record and 1.57 ERA last season, with 122 strikeouts and 18 walks. Nola, now a junior, will take the mound Friday night at Alex Box Stadium for the Tigers' season opener against UNO. Show caption
Advocate staff photo by BILL FEIG -- LSU pitcher Aaron Nola finished with a 12-1 record and 1.57 ERA last season, with 122 strikeouts and 18 walks. Nola, now a junior, will take the mound Friday night at Alex Box Stadium for the Tigers' season opener against UNO.

With a potent, active fastball and uncommon poise, LSU’s ace seems right at home when he stands on the mound at Alex Box Stadium. But take a good look at him now — because after this season, he probably won’t be there.

Sean McMullen hears it before he realizes what’s happened.

“It sounds like a loud whistle,” said McMullen, LSU’s designated hitter and outfielder. “It’s as loud as anybody I’ve ever faced.”

Aaron Nola’s fastball produces a musical number and a common result.

As it creeps closer and closer to the plate, the low-90 mph pitch, full of rotation and spin, begins drifting lower and lower.

By the time McMullen or any other hitter begins to swing, it’s often too late. Many times, they simply watch it go by, that piercing whistle the first sign of trouble.

The reaction, McMullen says, is always the same.

“Shoot,” he said.

It’s not the speed that gets him. It’s not Nola’s deceiving delivery angle.

It’s not even the furious movement or the perfect placement.

It’s all of those things rolled up into one, brilliant toss.

The fastball is the cornerstone of Nola’s current sparkling career, a hitter-baffling pitch that’s made a good pitcher great.

“It’s probably the best pitch in college baseball,” shortstop Alex Bregman said.

Why and how did it get that way?

As Nola, a junior who’ll be draft-eligible at season’s end, begins what many feel is his final year at LSU, that fastball comes to the forefront.

He’ll take the mound for the season-opening game against UNO on Friday as a returning All-American, the reigning Southeastern Conference Pitcher of the Year and a guy who had one of the greatest pitching years in LSU history last season.

On a team missing many of the big bats that led it to the 2013 College World Series, LSU will lean on Nola — and his fastball.

“He has the ability to really command the fastball throughout the (strike) zone, and that’s why he’s special,” LSU pitching coach Alan Dunn said, “because if you can’t command that fastball, you can’t pitch.”

Like a bowl of ingredients that mix together to make a tasty dish, Nola’s fastball is the product of a combination of factors.

Cool, calm, collected

Aaron Nola had never heard Alex Box Stadium so loud.

In the fifth inning of a scoreless super regional game against Oklahoma last season, Nola allowed a runner to reach third base with one out.

He struck out the next man up. Colt Bickerstaff, the next batter, sent Nola’s first pitch to shortstop, a grounder and inning-ending third out.

The place erupted.

Nola wanted badly to scream and roar, to fist-pump and foot-stomp. He wanted to celebrate.

He didn’t. It was one of the toughest self-induced emotional restraints of his career.

What does this have to do with his fastball?

“There are times you can’t tell if he’s up six or down six, which is another trait of the special-type pitchers that have the ability to slow the game down,” Dunn said. “It’s about executing that one pitch and the next pitch and the next pitch and being able to stay within themselves and he’s able to do that.”

Nola even describes himself as “kind of quiet,” one who has “never been outgoing.”

They are traits he learned from brother Austin, a former LSU shortstop who’s even calmer than Aaron.

They are traits that help him with mound composure and silent body movement.

They are traits that help with the fastball.

“I kind of just feel it in my head,” Nola said. “I know what I did in my head. I’m not going to show it.”

Peculiarities

Nola rolls his right shoulder and pops it out of place during an interview session.

“It’s pretty weird,” he said. “Strange.”

In many places, he’s double-jointed.

Does that help him pitch? He doesn’t know for sure, but it can’t hurt.

Nola can extend his arm behind his back farther than most, something that comes in handy during his windup. Every little inch of extension helps.

Maybe that’s behind a somewhat baffling part of Nola’s fastball: the steep nature of it despite his delivery angle.

Nola’s arm angle at delivery is termed to be “mid-three-quarter” — between overhand and sidearm. His pitches are so steeply angled that they appear to be thrown overhanded.

“Most guys like that the ball will stay more this way (flat),” Dunn said. “He’s able to get the ball and drive the ball down at a good angle. That’s key to pitching.”

“It’s going to be at your knees every time,” outfielder Jared Foster said. “The control he has with it is unreal.”

Same old spot

The windshield of Austin Nola’s red Toyota Tacoma is still cracked.

It’s a reminder of what his brother did to it.

During one of the brothers’ many pitch-and-catch sessions while in high school, Aaron’s pitch sailed too high for Austin’s glove.

It found Austin’s windshield.

“He hasn’t gotten it fixed,” Aaron says laughing.

This was a rare moment when Aaron Nola didn’t display pinpoint accuracy. This was a stumbling block on the road to his current form as a pitcher who can hit a tiny spot over and over again from 60 feet away.

It’s, maybe, the most important aspect of his fastball: controlling and commanding where it crosses the plate.

Dunn saw the command during Nola’s first bullpen session with the coach in 2011.

“When you look at someone who’s a top-flight pitcher, they have the ability to command their fastball and they can usually throw that location — down and away — and hit that spot over and over again,” he said. “I saw that as a young freshman kid pitcher.”

Pitching with big brother for more than a decade during his childhood is behind the accuracy.

The two used to play a game Nola called “the chest game.” Each would hold a glove open against his chest while the other threw the ball into the glove.

The non-thrower wasn’t supposed to move the glove.

Dangerous? Sure.

Productive? Yes.

Said Nola: “We still play those games.”

Not so speedy

Nola’s fastball tops out at 96 miles per hour. He’s only hit that number twice, he said.

He hovers around 91-94.

Does he want more speed?

Nola reluctantly nods his head.

He’s tried to muscle the ball across the plate before. It never ends well.

That angle of the fastball moves from steep to flat. And the spin on the ball is diminished.

“Usually those are the balls you really don’t throw as hard because you’re muscling the ball and not using the right mechanics,” he said.

How can Nola be so successful with a fastball that rarely tops 94?

Dunn calls it “playable velocity.”

“If he’s 92, then his fastball can play harder than that because of where he’s locating it in the zone and the angle he’s getting,” the coach said.

Final inning

Coach Paul Mainieri isn’t expecting Aaron Nola to return next season.

If he has a year similar to the one last season — 12-1 record, 1.57 ERA — Mainieri expects he’ll be a top-10 pick in the draft.

“I’m going to enjoy this last year,” the coach said. “I have no illusions that he’ll be back for his senior year. I’d like to see him go out in a blaze of glory and win the national championship.”

Nola said he hasn’t thought about what he’ll do after the season. “That’s a long ways away,” he said.

After all, there are a lot of fastballs to be thrown between now and then.

No one knows that more than Bregman. In his first at-bat against Nola last fall, the then-freshman hit a home run off Nola.

Since then?

“I’m like 1-for-10,” Bregman said. “After that, he’s got me every time.”