Small ball helps Tigers top Georgia 4-0

Don’t tell coach Paul Mainieri he uses small ball.

Don’t you dare.

“I don’t call that small ball,” he said. “I call that good at-bats.”

Mainieri is pushing aside his swing-away ways, and LSU’s hitters are coming through with perfectly placed dribbling bunts.

The Tigers had three sacrifice bunts, all leading to runs, and ace Aaron Nola pitched a two-hit shutout through nearly seven innings of LSU’s 4-0 win over Georgia on Friday night at Alex Box Stadium.

Nola threw a whopping 117 pitches and struck out eight, getting a standing ovation from 7,103 at Alex Box as he trotted off in the seventh.

For a guy who’s now 5-0 with a 0.22 ERA, that’s no real surprise.

What is: the bunts.

Mainieri, a power-ball coach who often speaks out on the elimination of offense in the game, has turned to his short game to score runs.

“We bunt every day, practice every day,” catcher Chris Chinea said. “No matter who you are, you’ve got to get the bunt down.”

The Tigers (19-4, 2-2 Southeastern Conference) did it Friday, like they have all season.

LSU has 23 sacrifice bunts about one-third of the way through the year. The school record is 56 in 2011 — the first season the NCAA implemented the new bats, which are less friendly to hitters.

The Tigers scored two runs in the second and a run each in the fourth and fifth to beat the Bulldogs (14-9, 1-3), a squad picked to finish toward the bottom of the league.

LSU manufactured all but one run off a sacrifice bunt.

Andrew Stevenson had two sac bunts that led to a run each, and Conner Hale had another. The Tigers led off four of the first five innings with a hit.

Chinea had just the fourth two-hit game of his career, and Christian Ibarra and Sean McMullen each had a pair of hits.

Hits?

Who has time for those?

“Our bunts today were very clutch,” McMullen said.

The second and fourth innings were nearly mirror images.

The leadoff man, Ibarra, got on base. Stevenson had a sac bunt.

Chinea followed with a single to move Ibarra to third, and Ibarra scored on Kramer Robertson’s groundout.

“With one out and a man in scoring position,” Chinea said, “you’ve got to get that big hit in the clutch.”

The Tigers chased Georgia starter Ryan Lawlor in the fifth. He allowed eight hits and walked three.

Nola got win No. 5 on the mound. This one wasn’t easy.

He walked a career-high four. The last one of those in the seventh led to the hook.

“Yeah, career-high,” Nola said with a wry smile.

Zac Person replaced him and allowed three hits and struck out four in nine batters faced. Joe Broussard got the last out — a strikeout — with a runner on second to preserve LSU’s ninth shutout of the season.

The school record is 10, set by the 1996 national championship team.

LSU’s use of just two relievers is key. The Tigers have only 11 healthy pitchers for the weekend.

Nola and LSU’s hitters shook off a frustrating first inning.

Nola had to get out of a bases-loaded jam, and an apparent RBI single from Hale was called an out when it hit the runner at first, Kade Scivicque.

Several of Nola’s pitches appeared to catch the corners in the first, but home plate umpire Scott Cline’s strike zone stayed tight.

Nola allowed a single and then walked the next two batters — all with two outs.

On a 3-2 count, Nola struck out Jared Walsh to end the inning and leave the bases full.

At several points during the inning, Mainieri pulled off his hat or grabbed his head in apparent frustration with the zone. Restless fans gave Cline an earful throughout the inning.

Nola threw 31 pitches in the half-inning.

“I didn’t pout about it; just kind of went pitch-by-pitch,” Nola said. “Stay even-keel. Don’t get down.”

In the bottom of the inning, Hale appeared to hit an RBI single through the first-second gap. Scivicque, running from first to second, was called for interference.

The out ended the inning and left McMullen stranded at third.

Mainieri immediately raced out of the dugout and argued throughout the entire inning changeover.

“What a tough break,” Mainieri said. “The umpire thought the fielder was even with the runner and the runner impeded the first baseman’s ability to make the play. I thought the fielder was in front.”

It didn’t matter in the end. LSU played enough small ball ... oh, wait.

“It’s just executing,” Mainieri said, “the fundamentals of the game.”