Like a lot of mid-week baseball games early in the season, Wednesday’s battle between 10th-ranked LSU and Northwestern State will be an audition of sorts for Tigers players and pitchers trying to carve out a different role as the SEC season pops up on the horizon.
There’s a little more to the script this time around, though.
When LSU (13-3) and the Demons (5-10) meet at Alex Box Stadium with first pitch set for 6:30 p.m., the trial under fire is over for freshman pitcher Aaron Nola but may be only beginning for a handful of position players.
Nola will start on the mound, but only in an abbreviated form because he has been elevated to the role of weekend starter. He nailed down that transition with a dazzling start against Tulane last week, piggybacked on another solid start at McNeese State and several effective relief showings.
When sophomore Kurt McCune’s struggles continued for a third consecutive start Sunday in a 7-1 loss to Notre Dame, the logical solution for LSU coach Paul Mainieri was to shift Nola into the Sunday starting role.
“When I called him in and told him my decision and how we were going to change things, he just said ‘O.K. coach,’ ” Mainieri said. “He’s just kind of an unflappable kid who is willing to do whatever he needs to do to help his team – kind of cut from the same mold as Louis Coleman. When a player has that kind of attitude, I feel like they have a chance to be successful in whatever role they fill.”
Nola won’t go long vs. Northwestern State. Mainieri said the primary reason Nola is throwing at all is to make sure he has a chance to work on endurance and stay sharp.
“I’d love to see him go out and dominate for three innings and throw 35 pitches or so,” Mainieri said. “I’m not going to let him throw more than 40.”
Who takes the diamond around Nola is also a bit if a mystery.
The Tigers are still recovering from a stomach virus that rolled through the team Sunday night and Mainieri won’t be sure of exactly who is ready to suit up and play until Wednesday afternoon.
Had LSU played a scheduled game Monday night, only nine position players were at the baseball complex and ready to play.
The Tigers went through a light practice session Tuesday that Mainieri said was understandably the most lethargic he’s ever had in his 30 years as a coach.
“Most of the kids could barely move around because most of them had not eaten a thing for a few days,” Mainieri said. “My main concern is to see which kids have the strength to be out there.”
With teams limited to 27-man rosters for SEC series, there could be a few spots up for grabs if the stomach bug hangs around.
|Evan Powell: Was ready to start Monday if needed and may get a chance to play against the Demons|
Freshman Evan Powell and junior Arby Fields were two of the little-used reserves who were slated to start Monday, and they could be on call against the Demons – with that chance to catch Mainieri’s attention.
“Anybody who goes out and shows they can play and bang out a few hits is making the right impression on me,” Mainieri said. “None of these guys would be here we didn’t think they could play at this level. Sometimes it’s just a matter of getting a chance to show it.”
Northwestern doesn’t figure to just show up, either.
The Demons stunned LSU last season 5-2 at the Box. This year’s Demons team is hard to get a read on.
They went toe-to-toe in a game each against Arkansas and Texas A&M, but have lost to Southern twice and gotten swept at home by Missouri State as well.
Last weekend, NSU took its opening Southland Conference series, 2-1 against McNeese State.
Junior right-hander A.J. Funk is the Demons’ starter, but it will be a major surprise if junior left-hander Mason Melokatis doesn’t come out of the bullpen at some point. Last season Melokatis logged 4 innings against the Tigers and struck out 10 of 13 batters he faced.