There are moments in a coach’s career when he gets the chance to break news to a player about a great accomplishment or a big chance – times that warm the human heart for years to come.
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The Tigers moved a day closer to their NCAA Tournament opener on Tuesday with plenty of news to go around.
Early in the day, the SEC released its 2012 All-SEC teams and LSU fared well with five players earning recognition.
Junior outfielder Raph Rhymes was voted by league coaches as the Player of the Year after a season when he flirted with a .500 batting average for a few weeks before leveling off to his current. 459. He also leads the Tigers (43-16) with 50 RBIs.
Kevin Gausman joined Rhymes on the All-SEC first team, Mason Katz was voted to the second team, Aaron Nola was tabbed for the All-Freshman team and sophomore pitcher Ryan Eades landed a spot on the All-Defensive Team.
Rhymes is the first LSU player to win the Player of the Year award since Jon Zeringue in 2004 and only the sixth Tiger overall.
“Not many people have received that award, and to receive it’s a great honor,” Rhymes said. “I never thought it would happen. Just the road to get here and to be the SEC Player of the Year is a great accomplishment and I’ll never forget it.”
That was a good example of the emotion stirred up in the normally stoic Rhymes.
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At the other end of the spectrum was Nola.
When Mainieri brought the right-handed pitcher into his office and told him he’d be starting the regional opener at Alex Box Stadium on Friday night, the response was … well, about what Mainieri and the Tigers have come to expect from their even-keeled teammate.
“He said ‘OK Coach,’ ” Mainieri said with a chuckle. “That was about it.”
To be fair, Nola was somewhat un-Nola-like when asked about getting the starting nod in his hometown and in an event he grew up watching as far back as he can remember.
“It’s unbelievable,” said the Catholic High graduate, who is 6-4 this season with a 3.93 ERA. “I get to be out there in the first game of a regional in front of thousands of fans. I’m excited.”
If there’s a built-in advantage to Nola starting, it’s the fact that Mainieri knows the unflappable freshman won’t get rattled by ULM (31-28) or much of anything.
“You don’t ever see Aaron Nola look different if he’s in a struggling situation or whatever,” catcher Ty Ross said. “If the bases are loaded or his getting outs, he’s the same. Whenever I go out and talk to him, he normally just shakes his head and says ‘OK.’ ”
Part of that calmness is hereditary.
From the time Austin Nola emerged as LSU’s starting shortstop midway through his freshman season, he has been one of the Tigers’ steadier players.
That’s a pretty solid blueprint to follow.
“He has a brother who’s been here four years and he’s seen him play,” Ross said. “Austin Nola is one of the most consistent guys on the team – always confident, always positive. He keeps that even keel the whole time and that’s the way Aaron is, too.”
There are more similarities between the Nolas than that placid approach to baseball.
Both have been around LSU baseball for most of the Tigers’ glory years, with Austin playing a major role on the last national championship team in 2009.
With both prominent for LSU this season, there’s some prestige and pride involved with stepping on the diamond together for a home regional.
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“It’s kind of a dream come true to be out there pitching in a game like that with him behind me,” Aaron Nola said.
Added Austin Nola, “We never thought we’d be playing together in a situation like this. It’s going to be awesome to see him out there. I think he’s ready. I like playing behind him. He keeps me working with that movement on his fastball that creates a lot of ground balls. I never get nervous for him because I know he’s going to give us all he can.”
There is some strategy involved with Nola starting as well, of course.
His only appearance at the SEC Tournament was a start in the Tigers’ opener against Mississippi State last Wednesday when he notched only two innings – two very solid innings when the Bulldogs couldn’t touch him.
Prior to that, his last appearance was at South Carolina on May 18.
Mainieri said he isn’t concerned about Nola’s lack of activity, and instead sees it as a benefit. He said Nola was clocked at 94 mph against State, as high as he’s topped out this season.
“I’m not concerned at all,” Mainieri said. “I look at that as a positive. He’s well-rested, he’s fresh, he’s sharp. I think he’s champing at the bit for this opportunity and he’ll be strong.
“He’s the one guy who hasn’t pitched on his regular turn.”
And he will get a full-blown turn.
Unlike the SEC Tournament when Nola started a game with Mainieri’s intention of him throwing only two innings, this start is Nola’s to own.
“I told him I’m going to give you the ball and give it back to me at the end of the game,” Mainieri said.
Which has to make Nola nervous at some level, right?
“I’m going to have butterflies, but that’s normal,” he said.
“But I’m just going to be focused on what I’m doing and try to not change anything.”
Rhymes, Gausman on Golden Spikes list
It was a busy day of recognition for Rhymes and Gausman, as the LSU duo was also listed on the list of 30 semifinalists for the 2012 USA Baseball Golden Spikes Award.
The list will be narrowed to three finalists on June 5.
Gausman is 10-1 with a 2.84 ERA and SEC-best 125 strikeouts heading into the NCAA Tournament.
For more information on the award go to GoldenSpikesAward.com.
At Alex Box Stadium
Game 1: 2 p.m. – (3) Belmont (39-22) vs. (2) Oregon State (38-18)
Game 2: 7 p.m. – (1) LSU (43-16) vs. (4) UL-Monroe (31-28)
Game 3: 2 p.m. – Belmont-Oregon State loser vs. LSU-ULM loser
Game 4: 7 p.m. – Belmont-Oregon State winner vs. LSU-ULM winner
Game 5: 1:30 p.m. – Game 3 winner vs. Game 4 loser
Game 6: 6:30 p.m. – Game 5 winner vs. Game 4 winner
Game 7: 6:30 p.m. – Game 5 winner vs. Game 4 winner, if necessary