Rabalais: Aces dealt donuts, but Aaron Nola’s were sweeter

It was National Doughnut Day on Friday, no more fitting a spot in the workweek to watch LSU’s Aaron Nola and Oklahoma’s Jonathan Gray deal empty round ovals at each other in Game 1 of the Baton Rouge Super Regional.

The Willow Run factory outside Detroit used to roll out B-24 bombers every 55 minutes during World War II. Watching Nola, the Tigers’ willowy right-hander, and Gray, the Sooners’ beefy hurler who went third in Thursday’s draft to the Colorado Rockies, chainsaw their way through the lineup inning after inning at Alex Box Stadium had that same assembly-line feel.

Nola and Gray mixed tough fastballs with wicked sliders, keeping batters from both teams teetering in their boxes.

Mmmmm, doughnuts. In boxes.

Sorry. I digress.

Gray was the more overpowering of the dynamic duo. The mesmerizing choreography of the LSU grounds crew strutting their, ahem, stuff out near second base after the fifth inning was as close as anyone in LSU colors got to second through the first seven frames.

“Best I’ve seen since Ben McDonald,” former LSU coach Skip Bertman said as he visited the press box in the seventh hunting for a pitch count.

Ben McDonald? Gray looked like the best athlete to touch down on LSU’s campus since Dennis Quaid played Gavin Grey in “Everybody’s All-American.”

It was a titanic struggle, like watching a heavyweight bout with baseball gloves instead of boxing gloves.

“It was everything everyone expected it to be,” LSU coach Paul Mainieri said. “As good a pitching matchup as you’ll see in college baseball.”

With round after round winding up a draw, it looked like this one might be decided on judge’s points, or pitch counts, anything other than a run.

Suddenly the game turned on a dime in the eighth. In one of the most athletic batter-pitcher matchups you’ll ever see in a college game, LSU’s JaCoby Jones split the outfielders in right-center with a smash triple to the wall on an 0-2 count.

Cue Tyler Moore. His two-out home run and double helped LSU turn back Stony Brook in Game 1 of last year’s Baton Rouge Super Regional. This time he lifted a ball over right fielder Taylor Alspaugh’s head to score Jones, then gave way to Jared Foster, who came home from second on a single to right by Mark Laird.

Chris Cotton was tumbling in the bullpen on the warm cycle, but Nola deserved to finish this one. He notched his fifth complete game and school record-tying third shutout with an almost anticlimactic 1-2-3 ninth to set up Saturday’s potential Game 2 clincher.

“I told the kids we weren’t going to get 10 runs and 15 hits off (Gray),” Mainieri said. “We didn’t need that many. We’re pitching Nola.”

If you’ve been following this season’s storyline, you remember that LSU was in this spot a year ago after taking a rain-delayed Game 1 over Stony Brook 5-4 in 12 drama-infused innings. An entire calendar has swung around to find this year’s Tigers team trying to avenge the two losses to Stony Brook that followed, two of the most bitter defeats in program history.

“I told them after the game I don’t want them to think if we win (Saturday) that we’re going to Omaha,” Mainieri said. “I want them to think we’re playing for a championship. You don’t have to put any added pressure on yourself to do anything you haven’t been doing.

“I wanted them to take that attitude last year, too. The problem was, we won a game, then had to play another game a half-hour later. This time they’ll be mentally ready, I think.”

If they are, they can thank Nola for putting them there. Saturday he can enjoy a doughnut, and hope to wait for the dogpile.