Rabalais: Aaron Nola finds his dominance just in time

HOOVER, Ala. — Aaron Nola was struggling to start Thursday’s game against Arkansas.

This, for Nola, is a relative term. Sort of how Kate Upton struggles to look dazzling without makeup or Matthew McConaughey struggles to be cool when, well, when he’s sleeping I guess.

Nola’s pitches were grazing the outside of the strike zone and he was falling behind in counts and Arkansas hitters, perhaps sensing an “I found a Picasso in a yard sale behind the Rolling Stones poster” moment, dinked and jabbed a couple of hits through the wickets. Suddenly, His Dominance and the LSU Tigers trailed 1-0 with the bases loaded in a game they were supposed to win in a romp.

Greatness, like baseball, doesn’t have a clock. And ultimately, Nola found his dominance on a different path than usual, a path that set LSU yet again on a course for the Southeastern Conference tournament semifinals.

LSU coach Paul Mainieri can deliver the hyperbole. It’s one of his gifts. But he admits he’s running out of ways to express his awe and admiration for Nola, who says he’s the best pitcher he’s had in his 32 years as a head coach.

But after watching Nola settle down and at one crucial stretch reduce 19 of 21 straight Razorbacks to pork tenderloin, Mainieri, like his pitcher, found a different level of expression.

“It seems every game he outdoes himself, but this game I think shows his true greatness of Nola,” Mainieri said. “When he gets into jams he just has that innate ability to raise his game to another level. He kept his team in the game then he started to dominate.

“Not that he just has great stuff, great talent, but he’s got that little something extra. In Louisiana we call it lagniappe.”

In Arkansas they just say, “Oh, *!&%, not that guy again.”

“I’ll be glad when he’s out of the league,” Arkansas coach Dave Van Horn said.

“You’ve got to get to him right out of the chute because you know he’ll settle down after that. That’s what he does. He’s tough. That’s why he’s 10-1. You have to know how to pitch when you’re in trouble. That’s the key to being a great pitcher.”

Nola struck out seven Razorbacks in 7.1 innings of work, giving him 47 strikeouts in 36.2 career innings against Arkansas. Stitch together his two starts this season against the Hogs and you have 20 Ks, which The K Lady at LSU would have to stretch from Alex Box Stadium to Tiger Stadium.

Six of those strikeouts were looking.

Nola throws hard — he was tripping the radar gun at 96 mph at times — but his pitches also have movement. They can look like question marks coming to the plate, and certainly leave opposing batters guessing.

One day, Tyler Moore will smile as he tells people how back in college he was Nola’s personal catcher. (“You know,” he’ll say, “the Aaron Nola who pitched in the majors?”).

Crouching behind the plate he sees why hitters so often turn to missers against the Tigers’ ace.

“He’s got three pitches he can throw for strikes, not just for strikes but he can spot the ball,” Moore said. “The hitters are always off balance and don’t know what’s coming.

“When the fingers go down (to signal which pitch to throw), Aaron’s going to throw that pitch with conviction and he’s going to execute it most of the time.”

When Nola finally left the game in the eighth, a bit gassed after 110 pitches, it was to a standing ovation not from just the thousands of Tigers fans in Hoover Metropolitan Stadium, but from many of the Razorbacks fans, too. It was a classy send off for a pitcher who joined a pretty elite class Thursday, his 29th career win tying the great Ben McDonald and Louis Coleman for eighth in LSU history.

There’s little doubt about it: Nola will go down as one of the two or three greatest pitchers in LSU history. McDonald is on that short list, along with perhaps a Mike Sirotka or a Paul Byrd.

Just don’t leave Nola off. And just make sure if you have the means and the time you are at The Box next week when Nola pitches for what may be the final time at home in the NCAA regional LSU all but locked up with Thursday’s 7-2 victory.

Greatness doesn’t have a clock. And it doesn’t come around often, either.

Follow Scott Rabalais on Twitter: @RabalaisAdv.