- David Helman, Reporter, RecruitingNation
Friday night would have been special without any manufactured story lines hanging over the proceedings at Alex Box Stadium.
With 9,909 fans in attendance for LSU's return to the postseason after a disappointing 2011, it was special enough to see the Tigers out-duel their former pitcher Randy Zeigler in a classic pitchers' battle to open this weekend's regional.
It was even better when the Tigers' freshman starting pitcher notched a career-high 10 strikeouts and went eight innings while holding the Warhawks to a paltry one-run. And when the pitching suffered a let down, there was LSU's senior shortstop to make diving catches, turn double plays and knock in a game-best two RBI in his last postseason with the team.
Now comes the twist that LSU fans are already familiar with: the Tigers' victorious ace, Aaron Nola, and their vacuum cleaner shortstop, Austin Nola, are brothers. And together the two former Catholic High School standouts made a combination that Louisiana-Monroe just couldn't figure out.
"It was like the Nola brothers show tonight," said a bemused Paul Mainieri before the Tigers' postgame press conference.
Making his 15th start of his freshman season, it was a fitting moment for Aaron Nola to deliver on a grand stage. Tiger fans first got familiar with Austin in 2009, when Mainieri famously moved DJ LeMahieu to second base to make way for the talented freshman shortstop. In much the same way, sophomore pitcher Kurt McCune ceded the Sunday spot in the starting rotation to Aaron earlier this spring, and the youngster responded with a 6-4 record and a 3.93 ERA.
But Aaron Nola took it to a different level in this, his postseason debut. The younger Nola completely shut down the Warhawks in his eight innings of work, and he chose a great time to set his career high for strikeouts, tossing 10 of them while working his pitch count up to a whopping 118.
"He showed a lot of poise out there -- I was impressed to see him go out there and pound the zone. That was huge for our team," said Austin of his younger brother.
Said Aaron: "The crowd was unbelievable. They were really alive, and that's what made it fun."
When Aaron's stuff wasn't good enough, Austin delivered with four years of expertise in the field. The Tigers' shortstop brought the Alex Box crowd to its feet in the third inning when he laid out and made a snow cone catch on a line drive to end a three-hit ULM rally. Later, when Aaron was jammed up with the bases loaded and one out in the seventh inning, he forced a hard ground ball to JaCoby Jones, who flipped to Austin for a double play ball to preserve the tied score.
"What can I say about the infielders? They're great," said Aaron Nola. "Words can't describe how good they are. That was a game-changing performance."
If Austin Nola's defensive highlights weren't enough to merit praise, he also led the charge against the Warhawks' stingy pitching staff. It was the elder Nola who belted a deep sacrifice fly to tie the game, 1-1, in the third inning. It was a well-hit shot that, on a less windy evening, would have carried over the left field fence.
"Austin in particular just absolutely crushed a couple of balls early in the game that I thought were going to be home runs except for the wind blowing in from left field," Mainieri said.
Later, in the seventh-inning rally that ultimately decided the game, Austin Nola tacked on the night's final run with a hard-hit RBI double to right field to score third baseman Tyler Hanover. Of course, with Hanover knocking two RBI of his own, Austin was quick to point out that there were seven other players besides the Nola on the field.
"It was big, but it was a team effort -- it wasn't just us," he said. "Everybody played their role in this game, and that was a difference-maker."
Mainieri was quick to point out that Aaron's weekend is done after such a grueling outing, even if the regional lasts until Monday. But after sharing this win, the Nolas undoubtedly hope to repeat the moment next weekend in a super regional setting.