Nola shines in opening win; Tigers, Tide split after long delay

Aaron Nola glared into coach Paul Mainieri’s eyes and spoke.

“I’m going to be really mad at you,” the LSU pitcher said, “if you take me out.”

Mainieri kept him in. Nola got outs.

The former Catholic High star made what could be his last start at Alex Box Stadium one of his best.

He struck out nine in a complete-game four-hitter, and freshman Jake Fraley scored both runs as LSU beat Alabama 2-0 in the first game of a Saturday doubleheader.

The Tide evened the series more than 10 hours later, winning Game 2 of the twin bill 5-1 in a game that ended at 12:24 a.m. Sunday after three rain delays. Against six LSU pitchers, Bama had eight hits, including a pair of two-run homers, and Alden Cartwright took the loss.

It sets up a rubber match at 1 p.m. Sunday. It’s a pivotal game in a Southeastern Conference duel between two teams battling to remain in contention for an SEC West title and host an NCAA regional.

LSU (36-14-1, 14-11-1) will play in a fourth straight rubber match and will try to stave off some unwanted firsts this season: losing consecutive SEC series and dropping a series at home.

Freshman Jared Poché will start for LSU as coach Paul Mainieri tweaked his game plan. Poché was expected to start in Saturday’s nightcap, but the coach opted for Cartwright instead.

This day, though, belonged to Nola.

He retired the first 15 batters he faced to lead the Tigers to a series-opening win in a key league duel with the Tide (32-19, 14-12).

Mainieri scrapped the idea of yanking Nola before the ninth inning after pitcher and coach had that conversation in the dugout.

“I said, ‘Are you going to be mad at me if I take you out?’ He said, ‘I’m going to be really mad at you if you take me out,’” Mainieri said. “I said, ‘OK, let’s go for it.’ He goes 1-2-3 and doesn’t make a bad pitch in the inning.”

Nola retired the final three batters on 11 pitches, and the announced 6,366 at Alex Box roared when he struck out Georgie Salem for the second out. The fans came to their feet, stomping and clapping, before Nola got Ben Moore to ground out to first base to end the game.

“The last out of the game was probably the most memorable,” Nola said. “They all stood up, and it was really loud. I’m definitely going to miss this place.”

The draft-eligible junior made his final regular-season home start. LSU would have to host an NCAA regional for him to get another start at the Box.

He made it count — and so did a couple of freshmen.

Fraley scored the two runs, one on an RBI double from rookie Danny Zardon, who got his first start at first base. Tyler Moore drove in the first run, scoring Fraley from second on a blooping single.

But the star? That was Nola (8-1, 1.43 ERA). He didn’t allow a runner past first base until the eighth inning, and he tossed a perfect first five frames.

“It’s unbelievable,” Fraley said. “I’ve been watching LSU play since I’ve been committed and knowing who Nola is. Coming here and seeing him in person, it’s just that much better. He’s an amazing baseball player.”

Alabama left fielder Casey Hughston broke up Nola’s perfect game, leading off the sixth with a hard single up the middle. Nola struck out the next two and induced a line out to end the inning.

Bama had two on with one out in the eighth before a double play ended the inning when Conner Hale caught a line drive and flipped to second for the putout.

Nola coasted before Hughston’s hit. Of Alabama’s first 15 batters, five struck out, four grounded out and six flew out.

Nola had four straight strikeouts, starting with the last out in the second. He struck out all three in the third as he moved into fourth place in LSU history with 322 career strikeouts.

“You almost feel you’re doing the kid a disservice by describing the way he pitches,” Mainieri said. “If you could start from scratch and build a pitcher, this is what you’d want to build.”

There’s no secret that Nola plans to forgo his senior season. The draft is June 5, and he’s projected as a first-round selection, which could net him more than $1 million in signing money.

“I wish I could sign the kid up for another three years, but he’s ready,” Mainieri said. “He’s as ready as ready can be for pro ball. He’ll be the fastest guy to the major leagues in this draft class.”

In Game 2, Cartwright, a freshman out of Runnels, was dinged up for five hits through 1.1 innings, and LSU wasted its only real scoring threat. The Tigers got their first two on in the seventh but couldn’t bring either home.