In the dream, Aaron Nola stands on the mound in Omaha as fans rise to their feet. Louisiana State holds a lead in the ninth inning of the deciding game of the 2012 College World Series. He throws a pitch and the batter hits a ground ball up the middle, which is fielded by Aaron’s older brother Austin. Austin throws to first, ending the game, the season and his college career. For the second time in four years, the Tigers dogpile in Omaha, national champs once again.
The dream is LSU coach Paul Mainieri’s. At its core—Aaron and Austin both wearing purple and gold next year—the dream is shared by the Nolas and presumably by the thousands of fans who pack Alex Box Stadium every time the Tigers play.
Mainieri has allowed himself to dream the perfect ending. Aaron, however, can’t think past the possibility that he might finally play on the same team as his older brother.
“I’ve thought about it all the time, us playing together,” Aaron said.
On the surface, it sounds like a pipe dream. Austin is a junior at LSU, and one of the top-rated college shortstops in a draft loaded on talent, but not on middle infielders. Aaron is the top-rated high schooler in Louisiana. As his brother did, he plays shortstop at Catholic High in Baton Rouge, but his real talent is as a righthanded pitcher. He entered the season ranked among the top 100 high school draft prospects in the country and has done little to lose that standing.
And, yet, maybe it’s not just a dream. Maybe they both really will play for the Tigers next year.
“We’ve always had that dream,” Austin said. “I never thought it would come true and now it’s right in front of us. Playing together would be really special.”
Austin and Aaron are separated by three years in school, a gap significant enough to allow for just one previous chance to suit up together. When Austin was a senior at Catholic, Aaron could have been called up to varsity once the freshmen team’s season ended, coach Kyle Achord said. That opportunity was foiled when Aaron suffered a back injury.
“He probably would have dressed with us,” Achord said. “But he got real tall going into his freshman year and had some stress fractures in his back.”
The next fall Austin headed three miles down the road to LSU and Aaron took over as Catholic’s ace. They found success in their new roles. Aaron went 7-1, 1.85 for Catholic, striking out 82 and walking 15 in 57 innings.
Austin, meanwhile, had to wait a little longer to make his mark at LSU. The Tigers had a veteran team in 2009, complete with D.J. LeMahieu at shortstop. So for much of the season, Austin waited his turn, playing mostly during midweek games.
That changed 40 games into the season when Mainieri shook up the lineup, inserting Austin at shortstop, moving LeMahieu to second base and sending second baseman Ryan Schimpf to the outfield. It was a controversial move in Baton Rouge, but LSU went 28-5 the rest of the season and beat Texas, the No. 1 national seed, in the College World Series.
“I thought (Austin) was the best man for the job,” Mainieri said. “He had good poise as a freshman. It’s not like he wasn’t used to high expectations and had been going to games at the old Alex Box his whole life.”
After their early successes, the Nolas have largely lived up to expectations. Austin was SEC tournament MVP last season and has become a leader off the field as well. Mainieri said Austin has done three times as much community service as anyone else on the team, which has done the most community service of any team at LSU.
“He has been a coach’s dream,” Mainieri said.
Aaron wowed scouts at the East Coast Professional Showcase with his low-90s fastball and changeup, which is regarded as among the best in this year’s high school class. He has continued to dominate hitters, putting together a 21-1, 1.35 career record with 208 strikeouts in 151 innings.
Achord is not shy about heaping praise on the brothers. He’s just sorry there isn’t another Nola for him to coach.
“I’m glad both of them represent Catholic High,” he said. “They’re great kids and great examples for the school.”
Scouts still have questions about both. While Aaron has a projectable frame at 6-foot-2, 170 pounds and an advanced changeup, some scouts wonder how his curveball will develop out of a low three-quarters delivery.
Austin has always been known more for his glove than bat, but he has struggled in both areas this spring. He had 13 errors in 49 games, almost doubling his career total of 16 entering the year. He was batting .295/.382/.422, down from last season, but not out of line with the decline across college baseball due to new bats.
“I feel like I’m playing well,” Austin said. “I made a few blunders at the beginning of the season. I’m trying to keep everything simple and make the routine plays. In the end it’s about keeping those errors down for the team because those plays can make a difference in the win and loss column.”
As the draft approached, both brothers said they weren’t thinking that far into the future because they were focused on finishing their seasons well. Aaron was trying to help Catholic repeat as state champions, and Austin was hoping to lead LSU back to regionals after a disappointing regular season.
“I have so much respect for these two boys that they could never do anything that would disappoint me,” Mainieri said. “I will support them in anything they want to do. I’m obviously biased, but I would love to see Austin come back for his senior year, and I hope Aaron comes to school. I think it would be an awesome experience for them to get to play together.”