Surging Aaron Nola leads LSU against S. Carolina

Sophomore right-hander Aaron Nola has thrown the only two complete games of his LSU career in his past two starts.

He has been dominant in each of his past four starts and has won all seven of his decisions. The Tigers have won all 10 of his starts.

LSU baseball coach Paul Mainieri said he doesn’t necessarily expect another complete game when Nola starts against South Carolina in the opener of a Southeastern Conference series Friday night in Alex Box Stadium. But he has come to expect Nola to pitch deep into games and put the Tigers in position to start the weekend on the right foot.

“He not only throws the ball over the plate consistently, but he throws it in good spots in the strike zone,” Mainieri said. “That’s why he has the greatest command of any pitcher I’ve ever had. On top of that, he has a great competitive zeal, and nothing rattles him. He has a lot of poise.”

In his past four starts, Nola’s ERA is 0.84, he has allowed just 16 hits in 32.2 innings and he has six walks to 37 strikeouts. In complete games at Arkansas and Alabama, he allowed seven hits, walked two and struck out 20. He allowed two runs at Arkansas and threw his first shutout against Alabama.

“We’ve all come to know that Aaron is a command guy with stuff that he’s able to locate very well,” pitching coach Alan Dunn said. “He’s done that for the last two outings. He’s located all of his pitches in counts that he needed to locate them in. That’s who he is. I think early on, when he was not going as deep in the game, he made a couple of mistakes up in the strike zone, which led to him getting a high pitch count and not taking it as deep into games.”

Nola, who leads the SEC with 82 strikeouts, has lowered his ERA by more than a run in his past four games to 2.15. Before that, it was 3.29, and most of the scoring came in single innings. He had a four-run third against BYU, a four-run seventh against Washington and a pair of two-run innings against Mississippi State.

“I’ve had big-time innings where I got hurt leaving pitches up in the strike zone,” Nola said. “I’ve been trying to get every single leadoff hitter out. When I’ve had men on base, I’ve tried to zone in and avoid big innings. I’ve been making quality pitches with men on base. My fastball command has been a little better.”

Nola set a school record for fewest walks per nine innings last season with seven in 89.2 innings.

“Everybody knows he’s a strike-thrower, so they’re going to come in and probably be aggressive on him,” Dunn said. “The second part of that is they’ve got to be quality locations, and that’s what he’s been able to do the last two outings. He’s throwing the ball in the zone, but they’ve been in spots where it’s more conducive to him having success than to the hitter having success.”

Nola anchors a staff that has the third-lowest ERA (2.45) in the SEC. South Carolina is sixth at 3.12.

LSU, the consensus No. 2 team in the country, is second in the SEC in batting average (.305); South Carolina, ranked 10th in the coaches poll, is fourth (.291). South Carolina is first in home runs (39), and LSU is second (33).

“I feel like it’s going to be an intrasquad game,” Mainieri said. “I see a team that’s a good solid team in every phase, and I would expect that we’re going to have three tremendous baseball games.”

The Gamecocks lost 7-6 to Gardner-Webb on Tuesday after sweeping then-No. 17 Kentucky over the weekend.

“I tell our players all the time that with great challenge comes great opportunity,” South Carolina first-year coach Chad Holbrook said. “We’re playing one of the best teams in the country. They’re 38-4 and that’s hard to do, especially in the league we play in.”

LSU won two of three at South Carolina in the final regular-season series last year, winning a showdown for the SEC title with a 3-2, 10-inning victory in the finale.

The Gamecocks have played in the past three College World Series finals, winning the title in 2010 and ’11. The Tigers won the 2009 CWS title.

This is South Carolina’s first appearance in the new Alex Box Stadium. Its previous trip to Baton Rouge was for a series in the original Alex Box in 2008.

“To me,” Mainieri said, “this weekend demonstrates what big-time college baseball is all about.”