LSU’s Aaron Nola and Oklahoma’s Jonathan Gray matched each other scoreless inning for scoreless inning for the first two hours of the opening game of the Baton Rouge Super Regional on Friday evening in Alex Box Stadium.
As darkness started to fall and the game remained tied at 0, Tigers first baseman Mason Katz went up to Nola in the dugout and assured him help was on the way.
“I told him, ‘We’re going to score at least one run,’ ” Katz said. “And he said, ‘You score one, and we’re going to win.’ So we ran out there and scored two.”
Pinch hitter Tyler Moore doubled home JaCoby Jones with the tie-breaking run in the eighth inning, and Mark Laird singled home another run for lagniappe.
Nola (12-0) was true to his word as he completed a dominant two-hitter with a 1-2-3 ninth inning. He walked none, hit one batter and struck out six in facing just two batters more than the minimum of 27.
The Tigers (56-9) are one more victory in the best-of-three series from their first trip to the College World Series in Omaha, Neb., since their 2009 national championship season. They’ll face the Sooners (43-20) again at 6 p.m. Saturday.
“That was as great a pitching duel as you’ll ever see,” LSU coach Paul Mainieri said. “It did college baseball really proud.”
After getting the Sooners in order in the first, Nola hit Matt Oberste leading off the second, then picked him off. Nola retired the next eight in a row, facing the minimum through four innings.
OU got its first hit when Oberste led off the fifth with a double to left-center before Hector Lorenzana sacrificed him to third. Catcher Ty Ross went to the mound and told Nola, “Don’t let this run score.”
Nola didn’t: He struck out Anthony Hermelyn and got Colt Bickerstaff to ground out to second.
“I was looking for that strikeout,” Nola said. “Fortunately, I got a chop to second. That was a big momentum changer for us.”
Nola bounced back with 1-2-3 innings in the sixth and seventh. With two outs in the eighth, he gave up a single to Bickerstaff, then got Taylor Alspaugh to ground out.
Gray, who was selected by the Colorado Rockies with the third choice in the Major League Baseball draft Thursday, matched Nola for seven innings in everything except economy of pitches.
He walked Sean McMullen, returning after a one-game absence because of a strained hamstring, leading off the first, then struck out Laird and Alex Bregman. Katz hit a liner into right center, but Alspaugh made a diving catch.
Raph Rhymes led off the second with a single, but after Christian Ibarra struck out and Ross flied out, he was thrown out trying to steal second.
The Tigers went down in order in the third before Laird led off the fourth by beating out a grounder to second. But Gray got Bregman to hit into a double play and Katz to fly out.
Gray walked Ross with two outs in the fifth, then struck out Jones looking. Laird singled with two outs in the sixth before Bregman grounded into a forceout.
The seventh was Gray’s most dominant inning: He struck out Katz looking, got Rhymes on a grounder and struck out Ibarra on three pitches.
But with one out in the eighth, Jones drove an 0-2 pitch into the gap in right-center and sped to third to become the first base runner to reach scoring position against Gray (10-3).
Moore, who had a crucial home run and double in the Tigers’ Game 1 super regional victory against Stony Brook last season, pinch-hit for Andrew Stevenson.
“I had eight innings to watch this guy throw, and watching him throw 100-plus pitches showed me his tendencies,” said Moore, who expected to see a first-pitch slider and did.
Moore drilled Gray’s 118th and final pitch over the head of Alspaugh in right as the largest crowd in LSU history (11,095) erupted.
“The guy is clutch,” Katz said of Moore. “He’s one of the most clutch players I’ve played with. He hasn’t had the most at-bats, but he’s had some big ones.”
Tigers closer Chris Cotton got loose in case he was needed, but Nola zipped through the ninth in Cotton-like fashion, getting three groundouts and finishing with 102 pitches.
“We need to get over this pretty quick because we need to come back (Saturday),” Oberste said. “Jonathan did a good job throwing, but we have to do a better job as hitters to get runs across.”
Fortunately for the Sooners, they won’t see Nola, who tied an LSU school record with his third shutout of the season. Ryan Eades will start instead.
“I can’t say enough about Aaron Nola,” Bregman said. “We saw who the best pitcher in the country was.”