One bad pitch didn’t have to equate to one bad inning.
LSU’s Nola brothers made sure of that Sunday and allowed the third-ranked Tigers to follow the same formula that had worked for two days against struggling Alabama.
The Crimson Tide hopped in front in the top of the first inning, but couldn’t hold onto the lead as LSU drew even in the bottom of the inning, surged in front an inning later and never looked back at Alex Box Stadium.
With a 5-1 victory, the Tigers swept Alabama and climbed into a first-place tie for the overall SEC lead with Kentucky.
LSU (30-7, 11-4) travels to Lexington next weekend for a top-5 showdown against the Wildcats (32-5, 11-4).
Before that could materialize, the Tigers had to finish off Bama (13-23, 4-11), and they relied on the same recipe that worked in the first two games of the series.
The Tide grabbed a quick lead when Jared Reaves pummeled a 1-and-2 Aaron Nola pitch into the left-field seats for Alabama’s only home run of the series. Nola got Ben Moore on a routine popup to right field on the next pitch and the threat was over.
As was the case all weekend, the Tigers didn’t let the Tide stay comfortable for long.
With one out in LSU’s portion of the first inning, Arby Fields began the latest chapter of his Phoenix-rising story by whipping an opposite-field single to right field on the first pitch he saw, and with two outs Raph Rhymes rolled a base hit through the middle. Austin Nola worked the count to 3-and-1 against Alabama starter Jon Keller and then rammed an RBI single to center field to score Fields for a 1-1 tie.
That was all LSU got right away, but it was enough. Because of Nola’s hit, the Tigers didn’t stay behind coming out of the first frame, which was the case in all three games.
“He bailed me and that was huge,” Aaron Nola said of his older brother, who finished with 6 RBIs in the series. “Our hitters contribute huge. The first inning, they get runs and that’s big for us and gives us confidence when we go back out there.”
Added Austin Nola with a smile, “Yeah I had to pick him up this time.
“That’s a big key for us. Whenever we get behind we come back and score. It says a lot about character of this team.”
Once Austin Nola popped the cork, the rest of the Tigers joined in.
Keller lost his control against the bottom of the batting order to begin the second inning, sandwiching walks around a fielder’s choice to put a pair of runners on base. JaCoby Jones blistered Keller’s first offering over center fielder Taylor Dugas’ head in center field for a double that plated Tyler Moore with the go-ahead run.
Fields lashed the next pitch into the left-field corner for a two-run two-bagger and the lead swelled to 4-1.
“In this day and age, it’s hard to have big innings, so you don’t want to fall too far behind,” LSU coach Paul Mainieri said. “When you can stay even or ahead, it helps your offense. You can stay aggressive, hit-and-run and take some chances.”
And let your talented pitches breathe easy.
After getting touched up for the homer, Aaron Nola settled in and refused to budge. He ran into trouble in the third inning when Andre Miller blooped a leadoff single, Dugas reached when he was hit by a pitch and Hunter Gregory squibbed an infield single to left side to fill the bases.
Facing Alabama’s three- and four-hole hitters, Nola didn’t blink. He got Reaves on a popup to Austin Nola right behind second base and squashed the uprising by coaxing Moore into a foul pop to catcher Ty Ross.
Aaron Nola was back in the weekend rotation after missing a start last week while he rested a sore shoulder. He logged 5 innings in his return and surrendered only three hits, struck out 5 and didn’t walk a hitter on the way to his 5th victory.
“It feels great,” Nola said after throwing 64 pitches, 48 for strikes. “That one weekend off, it hurt. Getting back on the mound, especially for a home game, I was excited.”
There wasn’t much cause for excitement in the Bama dugout even after Nola exited.
Joey Bourgeois took over for two innings, Kurt McCune threw the eighth and Nick Rumbelow blazed through the ninth. That trio retired 12 of the 14 batters they faced and never allowed a runner past first base.
“I would put our bullpen against anybody in the nation right now,” said Bourgeois, who lowered his ERA to 1.50. In the series, the Tiger relievers held the Tide scoreless in 6.2 innings.
“If our starters go out there and give us 5-6 strong innings, we’re going to take care of business. We fill up the zone and attack hitters.”
LSU didn’t make a whole lot more noise against Keller and the Alabama bullpen. The only other run came in the seventh inning when Jones hustled out an infield single, stole second, went to third base on Fields’ grounder to shortstop and dashed home on a passed ball.
|Arby Fields: 3 more hits, including a 2-run 2B that gave LSU a 4-1 lead.|
Fields’ at-bat was the only time the Tide got him out all day as he went 3-for-4 to finish off a series when he was 6-for-12 with 3 runs and 4 RBIs. Since he was thrust into action when Alex Edward tweaked a hamstring in the series finale at Florida, Fields is hitting .455 (10 for 22) with 7 runs and 6 RBIs.
“Arby Fields has been an amazing story for us,” LSU coach Paul Mainieri said. “He’s struggled at times in the fall and in the early portion of this season, but his work ethic has been incredible and he’s earned the success he’s enjoying now. It’s great for him personally, and it’s also great for our team because he’s played such a vital role for us.
“He’s made our team better. He weathered the storm and he’s made our team better because of that.”
Fields has been one key in a stretch when the Tigers have won 13 of 14 games and have surged into a frontrunner’s role in the SEC.
But the league slate is only half over, and that’s what Mainieri will remind his team off Tuesday when they get back together to practice for a mid-week game against Lamar.
“Now what matters is this point forward,” Mainieri said. “It’s hard to ignore your record, your standing in the SEC, your ranking nationally. But you try to keep your team focused on the most immediate challenge.”