Aaron Nola didn’t make many mistakes Friday night.
When he did, he sure made up for it.
Nola struck out a career-high 13 in a four-hit, seven-inning outing, and LSU beat Arkansas 5-3 at Alex Box Stadium, getting another gem from its All-American.
Sean McMullen hit a two-run homer in the third and Alex Bregman drove in two runs as the Tigers built an early 4-0 lead and coasted with Nola delivering mid-90s fastballs.
There were some anxious moments late.
Arkansas scored two in the eighth inning on a double off Zac Person, and the Razorbacks had the go-ahead run at the plate after Joe Broussard walked his first batter.
Broussard retired the final two in the eighth, then set down the side in the ninth for his eighth save. He stabbed a line drive for the second out in the ninth and recorded two strikeouts.
“Went out there trying to fill the zone up,” Broussard said, “because Nola battled his butt off tonight for us. Gave us everything he had. Want to get that kid a win.”
Nola, the former Catholic High star, pushed his record to 7-1 on a day when he was named to the Golden Spikes Award watch list, an honor given to the country’s top amateur baseball player.
When Arkansas got things going, Nola turned it up.
He allowed a solo home run to Eric Fisher in the fifth and then retired the next three batters. Joe Serrano smashed a screaming double to center in the fourth. Nola left him stranded there after striking out the next two batters.
He hit a batter to lead off the sixth before retiring three straight, and he opened the second by walking Brian Anderson before striking out the next three. He left two stranded in the seventh with an inning-ending strikeout of Michael Bernal.
The 7,035 at the Box gave a resounding roar on that strikeout, and Nola had his career high in Ks.
“He raises his game to another level when he needs to the most,” Mainieri said. “It’s no accident.”
Nola has allowed just five runs over 64 innings this season, and LSU (26-8-1, 7-5-1 Southeastern Conference) won its sixth straight game, a strong response following the program’s first four-game skid in nearly three years.
It sets up a chance to clinch the series win Saturday on national television. ESPN2 will air Game 2, which is set to begin at noon.
“You go through stretches like that,” Bregman said of the skid a few weeks ago. “It’s how you come back from them. We’re doing a good job of that right now.”
The Tigers had just five hits Friday but did their damage early to give Nola a cushion against an Arkansas offense that entered with the SEC’s worst team batting average.
The Tigers took a 2-0 lead in the first on a two-run single up the middle from Bregman. It brought home McMullen, who walked, and Mark Laird, who reached when Arkansas shortstop Michael Bernal botched a double-play ball.
In the third, McMullen slammed a two-run homer over the right-field wall for a 4-0 lead.
Nola struck out seven of his first 10 batters. He threw 10 of his 13 pitches in the first inning for strikes, hitting 96 mph once.
“Everything was working pretty well,” Nola said. “Was feeling good. Found my two-strike pitch.”
He found his most trouble in the seventh but got help from some botched base running for the Razorbacks (21-14, 6-7). Arkansas pinch hitter Clark Eagan reached base on an error from Bregman. Bobby Wernes and Jake Wise then hit back-to-back singles.
On Wise’s shot to left field, Eagan tried to come home from second base but changed his mind and was put out in his attempt to return to third. The Arkansas third-base coach initially waved him home.
The eighth inning had fans squirming on a cool night at the Box.
Person entered for Nola following a walk to lead off the eighth. He retired one, walked the next and then Brian Anderson sent a two-run double careening off the wall in right-center to make it 5-3.
Broussard entered to walk his first batter after starting 0-2 on pinch hitter Blake Baxendale, putting the go-ahead run at the plate.
Broussard induced a flyout and a groundout, then threw nine strikes in a 10-pitch ninth inning.
Mainieri said he went to the bathroom before the ninth started. On the walk back to the dugout he thought, “Wouldn’t it be nice to have Chris Cotton pitching this ninth inning?” he said.
Cotton had a school record-tying 16 saves last season.
“Joe Broussard has done everything that Chris Cotton did for us last year,” Mainieri said. “That was a pretty impressive ninth inning he showed us.”
Catcher Kade Scivicque and Nola were named to the midseason Golden Spikes watch list. Halfway through the season, Scivicque and Nola have developed into LSU’s stars. Scivicque, a junior college transfer from Maurepas, is second on the team with 23 RBIs. Nola has an ERA of 0.70. … McMullen, for a fifth straight game, started LSU’s at-bat by reaching base. He walked in the first.