With media gathered at LSU's Alex Box Stadium Tuesday wondering who would get the nod on the mound for the Tigers in Friday's Baton Rouge regional opener against Louisiana-Monroe, the giveaway answer was down the right field line.
Freshman right-hander Aaron Nola was getting his bullpen work in with pitching coach Alan Dunn during a time when it's usually Friday night starter Kevin Gausman getting the work.
Indeed, it will be Nola (6-4, 3.93 ERA), and not staff ace Gausman, who will get the start when No. 7 LSU (43-16) opens the regional against No. 4 seed Louisiana-Monroe (31-28) at 7 p.m. CT on Friday. Nola, who pitched a pre-planned two innings in a Wednesday start against Mississippi State at the SEC tournament, should be fresh and ready to go, head coach Paul Mainieri said.
"He pitched so well against Mississippi State, but we had our plan," Mainieri said of the decision to use Nola for two innings, then go to a bullpen-by-committee effort the rest of the way in what was eventually a 3-2 Bulldogs win. "Part of the plan to do that was obviously to have him ready for the (SEC tournament) championship game if we got there. And if we didn't get there, I felt like he will have toed the slab, he will have stayed sharp and if the worst thing happens that he doesn't pitch again, at least he got to pitch and wouldn't wear him out."
The latter scenario played out. Nola had electric stuff in two dominant, shutout innings against MSU, touching 94 mph with his fastball. He never pitched again because the Tigers went 1-2 at Hoover.
Even if Nola pitched a normal start against the Bulldogs, LSU may have chosen to start him against ULM. It's fairly common for a top seed in a regional to rest its No. 1 against a No. 4 seed and save him for a potential matchup against a much tougher No. 2 seed on Saturday. In this case, the Tigers would potentially have Gausman (10-1, 2.54) available to matchup against either No. 17 Oregon State (38-18) or Belmont (39-22), who play each other at 2 p.m. CT Friday.
Ryan Eades (5-2, 3.36) will be the LSU Sunday starter.
"I kind of thought that was going to happen," Gausman said of the rotation. "We're all happy with the way the rotation's been going. That's the way it was in Hoover. Nola didn't get a chance to make his second start, but his first start was Wednesday and he looked great."
Rhymes honored: LSU outfielder Raph Rhymes was named SEC Player of the Year Tuesday by the league's coaches.
Rhymes, a senior from Monroe, La., leads the nation in batting at .459 and was a shoe-in choice. He's the sixth LSU player to earn the honor, the first since Jonathan Zeringue in 2004.
Rhymes and Gausman were on the coaches' all-SEC first team. Outfielder Mason Katz was on the second team. Pitcher Aaron Nola was on the all-Freshman team and pitcher Ryan Eades was on the all-defensive team.
Rhymes and Gausman were also named among the 30 semifinalists for the Golden Spikes Award, given to the nation's top player.
Familiar face: LSU will likely face a former teammate, ULM left-hander Randy Zeigler (5-6, 3.65 ERA).
Zeigler, a senior from Shreveport, La., pitched sparingly for LSU's 2009 national championship team in an injury-riddled freshman season. He transferred to Bossier Parish Community College, then to ULM.
He's been a steady Friday pitcher from the Warhawks this season, but was roughed up in a two-inning stint on the first day of the Sun Belt Conference Tournament, allowing four runs on seven hits in two innings against South Alabama. The ULM bullpen excelled as the Warhawks rallied to win the game 7-4.
Zeigler did come back to pitch well Sunday in a 4-2 win over Arkansas State, getting a no-decision, but striking out nine in 6 1/3 innings.
New experience: While LSU is one of college baseball's storied programs for most of the current roster, hosting a regional will be a new experience.
Only shortstop Austin Nola (Aaron's older brother), third baseman Tyler Hanover and infielder Grant Dozar were lettermen on the last LSU team to host a regional, the 2009 championship team. Infielder Beau Didier had one at-bat that season -- a pinch-hit home run -- before getting sidelined for the year by injury and taking a redshirt.
"I'm going to love Friday," Gausman, a sophomore, said. "The atmosphere is going to be great. It's going to be exciting. We haven't had a regional since I've been here. Last year was a disappointment. We get the chance to bring it back to LSU and bring it back to Alex Box Stadium."
LSU went to Los Angeles for a regional in 2010 and failed to make the 64-team field in 2011.