Brilliant Defense, Dominant Nola Lead LSU Past Arkansas

FAYETTEVILLE, Ark.—Given the gaudy numbers that the heart of Louisiana State’s batting order has posted and the way Aaron Nola and Ryan Eades have dominated in the rotation, it’s easy to overlook the role LSU’s brilliant defense has played in the Tigers’ school-record 33-2 start and its current 15-game winning streak.

Nola was superb in LSU’s 6-2 win at Arkansas on Friday, allowing just two runs on four hits and a walk while striking out 10 in the first complete game of his collegiate career. But even more striking was the contrast between LSU’s outstanding defense and Arkansas’ poor defense.

The Hogs made four errors, leading to three unearned runs, giving them 15 errors in their last four games. Arkansas has a brutal .956 fielding percentage on the season, and its defense—especially in the infield—is a very significant concern heading into the second half of Southeastern Conference play.

LSU, meanwhile, is fielding at a sterling .983 clip, and the Tigers made four truly sensational defensive plays Friday. The first came in the seventh inning, when left fielder Raph Rhymes made a leaping catch at the wall to steal a home run away from Brian Anderson. An inning later, shortstop Alex Bregman made a charging, barehanded scoop on a Jacob Morris squibber with funky spin, then threw to first in time to get the speedy Morris.

In the ninth, Tyler Spoon led off with a hot shot down the line, and LSU third baseman Christian Ibarra made a pretty backhanded stop and a strong throw across the diamond for the out. The next batter, Anderson, ripped a ball into the right-center gap, and center fielder Andrew Stevenson showed off his top-of-the-charts speed by ranging to his left and making the diving catch.

“This is the best defensive team I’ve ever seen in college—not even one that I’ve coached—ever,” LSU coach Paul Mainieri said. “It’s not just fielding percentage, and our fielding percentage was .983 coming into tonight’s game, and we had another errorless game. But we make exceptional plays. Even Raph, who has worked so hard on his outfield play. Probably last year I would call him a serviceable outfielder, but I think he’s made himself into a pretty good outfielder.

“People think I’m crazy because Laird plays center field like a big leaguer, but I put Stevenson out there and he’s better than Laird. So you put Laird in right and you get pretty good coverage out there. Then our infield makes the routine plays, but how about the play Bregman made and the play Ibarra made? And then I think we have the best defensive catcher in the country back there (Ty Ross). So we’ve got a really good defensive player at every position, and it allows our pitchers just to be very aggressive and go after hitters, and know that if they put the ball in play and it’s anywhere close to our players, they generally make the play.”

Aaron Nola (photo by Andrew Woolley)

Aaron Nola (photo by Andrew Woolley)

Nola echoed that sentiment, but he also helped reduce the pressure on the defense by racking up those 10 strikeouts. Nola dominated Arkansas primarily by pitching down in the zone and at the corners with his lively fastball, which hit 93-94 mph repeatedly in the early innings and still sat at 91 in the ninth. He didn’t have his best feel for his 76-79 breaking ball and his 82-84 slider, but he still mixed those pitches in effectively. The fastball, though, was his bread and butter.

“My fastball location was working tonight,” Nola said. “The whole game I couldn’t really find my curveball, but I got a couple good curveballs in there with two strikes, got a couple strikeouts with that. It took me a little while to find my changeup a little bit, but I made the clutch pitches when I needed to, and our defense was phenomenal with all those plays, and our offense was clutch.”

LSU did most of its damage on two swings of the bat. Leadoff man Sean McMullen broke a scoreless tie in the fifth when he turned on a fat Barrett Astin fastball for a three-run homer to right field. The next inning, Ross added a two-run single up the middle.

Every year, Mainieri seems to make a midseason lineup adjustment that gives his team a spark, like when he inserted freshmen Mikie Mahtook and Austin Nola into the lineup midway through 2009, or when he called upon freshmen Alex Edward and Mason Katz in 2010. This year’s midseason find appears to be McMullen, a junior-college transfer who has given LSU a lift as the leadoff man and DH over the past 11 games.

“McMullen has really made us better,” Mainieri said. “We were playing pretty well, but I was a little concerned about our leadoff spot. I think McMullen, the light bulb kind of went on for him. He kind of had gotten to that point where he kind of had his feet on the ground, he was confident and not overwhelmed by everything. I thought the kid had a chance to be an electric player for us when we recruited him, but he just seemed nervous, unsure of himself. Maybe it was a different coach, a different environment, the brighter lights, I don’t know. But a couple weeks ago, I could just tell his batting practices were better, he was just carrying himself with more confidence. I thought it was time to put him in there, and since we put him in there he’s made a big difference for our team . . . That was just the missing piece that I thought we needed.”

All the pieces certainly seem to be in place for LSU now.