Rabalais: With Aaron Nola in ace mode, Tigers avoid troublesome test

Advocate staff photo by HILARY SCHEINUK -- LSU's Aaron Nola pitches against Houston on Saturday, May 31, 2014, at LSU's Alex Box Stadium. Nola gave up one run on four hits. He walked one and struck out seven. Show caption
Advocate staff photo by HILARY SCHEINUK -- LSU's Aaron Nola pitches against Houston on Saturday, May 31, 2014, at LSU's Alex Box Stadium. Nola gave up one run on four hits. He walked one and struck out seven.

Perhaps never did it look like the LSU Tigers need to tread so carefully on their home turf in an NCAA regional.

They started Friday with Southeastern Louisiana. There was scarcely a Lions player on their roster who was alive the last time SLU was in the NCAA tournament in 1994, but that didn’t stop them from staring the nationally seeded Tigers squarely in the eye.

The Lions didn’t follow a typical No. 4 seed’s script, leading late before their defense failed them and LSU surged past to an 8-4 win. The postseason will test all facets of your game, and the Lions were swamped by a leaky boat despite brave starting pitching from Pearl River’s Andro Cutura and prodigious home run pop from Andrew Godbold and Sam Roberson.

It was more of a test than you traditionally expect from a 1-4 matchup, but at least it was a test LSU passed. National seeds Louisiana-Lafayette, Florida and Florida State (the latter two 0-2 in their own regionals) wished they had such “troubles.”

But trouble was waiting for LSU in Saturday’s marble game all right.

The Houston Cougars worried LSU coach Paul Mainieri coming into this regional.

LSU earned its right to be the No. 8 national seed by thundering through the Southeastern Conference tournament last week to cap an eight-game winning streak. But the NCAA selection committee decreed that the Tigers would have to earn their way through this regional to host a super regional and hopefully return to the College World Series.

The Cougars were perhaps a win or two away from being national seed-worthy themselves. Houston sported a No. 10 RPI coming into the NCAA tournament and matched LSU’s 45-win total entering Saturday’s showdown.

But Houston also had a problem (sorry, couldn’t resist the “Apollo 13” reference).

For the Cougars, this game was an opportunity but also baseball played on a knife’s edge. It was winnable, but Houston needed a lot of factors to go right.

That started with the biggest human factor on LSU’s side: getting rid of Aaron Nola.

Rain has threatened through the first two days of the Baton Rouge regional, but by late Saturday afternoon enough sun poked through the clouds to color Alex Box Stadium a golden tint and cast long shadows across the infield.

Nothing cast a longer shadow than Nola.

The Cougars had their chances, or should we say, chance. Houston bounced back from a 1-2-3 first in which Nola struck out the side to score a tying run in the second and load the bases.

Then center fielder Kyle Survance popped up toward the LSU bullpen (the Tigers were the visitors for this game) down the left-field line. It looked like it might drop before shortstop Alex Bregman went flat-out horizontal to make the grab for the third out.

The last time I saw someone fly like that, he was wearing a cape.

The super hero bit seemed to re-stoke the Tigers’ collective confidence. LSU bounced back in front 3-1 in the third on RBI singles by Sean McMullen and Conner Hale.

It wasn’t an insurmountable deficit for Houston, except for the fact Nola relocated his mojo. He proceeded to retire 17 of the next 18 Houston batters before leaving with one out in the eighth to a thunderous standing ovation from the 10,436 fans in attendance.

Now LSU moves into Sunday’s championship round in the position of having only to win one more to reach a super regional.

The task of knocking LSU off for the survivor of Sunday’s early game between SLU and Houston will be daunting.

This is the ninth time since the NCAA tournament expanded to 64 teams in 1999 that LSU has been 2-0 in a regional at home. The Tigers have never lost in the previous eight instances, and only once were they even forced to a winner-take-all game.

The Tigers likely will send Kyle Bouman out to do the work on the mound Sunday. If he’s up to the task, LSU will be playing at home again next weekend, with another trip to Omaha in its sights.

Follow Scott Rabalais on Twitter: @RabalaisAdv.