Nola leads LSU past Oklahoma, 2-0 in NCAA tourney
BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — Aaron Nola’s composed response to the only tense moment in an otherwise dominant pitching performance is what LSU coach Paul Mainieri held up as the best example of how special his unbeaten ace really is.
With the potential go-ahead run on third with one out for Oklahoma, Nola recorded a strikeout and groundout, then cruised through the rest of a two-hitter, and the Tigers finally broke a scoreless tie in the eighth to take Game 1 of the NCAA Baton Rouge super regional, 2-0 on Friday night.
“You know what the great ones do? And he did it today. When the game is on the line, no matter how good you are, you’re still going to have that moment or two during the course of the game that’s going to define the game, and he had it,” Mainieri said. “He raised his game to another level. All the great pitchers that I’ve had in my coaching career — that was the common denominator.”
Oklahoma ace Jonathan Gray, picked third overall Thursday by Colorado in the Major League Baseball draft, was living up to his billing when he recorded his ninth strikeout to start the bottom of the eighth.
Then JaCoby Jones belted a towering triple to right center, and pinch-hitter Tyler Moore followed with a double to the right field wall to bring home the game’s first run while 11,095 fans packing Alex Box Stadium roared as if they were across the street in Death Valley.
“We had them right where we wanted them,” said Gray, whose Sooners saw an eight-game winning streak end. “I just did not throw a couple of pitches with conviction like I wanted to.”
Mark Laird had three hits, the last a run-scoring single in eighth for LSU (56-9), which can advance to the College World Series for the 16th time by beating Oklahoma (43-20) once more on Saturday or Sunday.
Nola (12-0) struck out six and didn’t walk a batter to help LSU snap Oklahoma’s winning streak at eight.
“Our whole team knew it was going to be a pitcher’s duel, and we were going to get deep in the game, both of us” Nola said of him and Gray. “We just needed a clutch hit. JaCoby provided that for us and Tyler came through.”
Gray (10-3) allowed two runs on five hits through 7 1-3 innings. He struck out nine and walked two.
The rosters of both teams combined included eight players — including LSU’s Jones — selected in the first 10 rounds of the Major League Baseball draft that began Thursday night.
The highest pick was the 6-foot-4, 239-pound Gray, a burly, hard-throwing righty who is regularly clocked in the mid- to high-90s.
He gave up his first hit in the second inning, when Raph Rhymes, a .340 hitter, lined a sharp opposite-field single to right.
He wound up throwing 118 pitches before being driven from the game by Moore’s tie-breaking double. Laird’s RBI single came off reliever Ralph Garza Jr., but the run was charged to Gray, who entered the game with a 1.59 earned-run average.
On most nights, Gray’s outing would have been good enough for the Sooners. Just not against LSU’s unbeaten ace.
“Jonathan did a good job,” Oklahoma first-baseman and leading hitter Matt Oberste said. “We have to do a better job as hitters to get runs across.”
Nola, a 6-1, 183-pound sophomore whose fastball hits the low 90s, didn’t allow a hit until the fifth, when Oberste led off with his 19th double of the season to left-center. He moved to third on a sacrifice bunt, but Nola then struck out Anthony Hermelyn and got Colt Bickerstaff to ground out to second to keep the Sooners scoreless.
Oklahoma had only one hit by Bickerstaff the rest of the way and did not threaten again.
“We tip our cap top Nola,” Oklahoma coach Sunny Galloway said. “We’re extremely proud of Jonathan Gray and the way he threw.
“Really what it came down to was a man on third with less than two outs,” Galloway said. “Nola got a punchout when we needed to make contact ... and their guy hit a good pitch. ... They got the hit when they needed to right there with a man at third.”
Both coaches noted that Nola, who threw 102 pitches while lowering his ERA to 1.68, was ahead of Gray in the pitch count throughout the game, and they figured that might come into play in the end.
“It was as great a pitching duel as you’ll ever see,” said Mainieri, describing it as a match of two first round draft picks, even though Nola won’t be eligible to re-enter the draft (he was selected in the 22nd round out of high school by Toronto) until next year. “Our guys have looked forward to facing Gray, but people might forget that we had a pretty good pitcher as well.”
In Game 2 Saturday night, Oklahoma will start lefty Dillon Overton, while LSU will also start a lefty, Ryan Eades. Both of those pitchers were selected in the second round.