Pitchers duel lives up to expectations

LSU sophomore Aaron Nola was able to get the best of OU and starter Jonathan Gray in the opening game of the Baton Rouge Super Regional on Friday night. Alex Box Stadium was absolutely electric from the first pitch on and everything lived up to expectations.

Heading into the opening game of the Baton Rouge Super Regional between LSU (56-9) and Oklahoma (43-20), the only topic being discussed was what would be seen out of pitchers Aaron Nola (LSU) and Jonathan Gray (OU). With the sun setting over Alex Box Stadium, the two dominant right-handers did not disappoint the record crowd of 11,095 screaming fans that witnessed the Tigers come away with a 2-0 victory.

LSU Coach Paul Mainieri said after the game that the atmosphere that formed inside Alex Box because of the pitching matchup was among the best he has ever been around in his many years of coaching.

"It was everything that everyone expected it to be," said Maineiri. "It was as great of a pitching duel as you'll ever see. On one hand you have a guy who was the third pick in the draft in Jonathan Gray and on the other hand you have Aaron Nola."

On Thursday night, Gray was selected No. 3 overall in the 2013 Major League Baseball Draft by the Colorado Rockies, something that was expected to happen all along. Gray exemplified what one of the best pitchers in college baseball should look like on Friday night.

He kept the LSU offense off-balance for most of the night until the eighth inning when he got into trouble and was removed from the action. Gray's final stat line was 7.1 innings, allowing five hits, two earned runs, two walks and nine strikeouts. At the end of the day, Gray was one inning, and perhaps one pitch, away from a near flawless performance.

As the game moved along, Gray didn't appear to be fatigued even though he was well over 100 pitches. However, he left a fastball over the plate to LSU junior JaCoby Jones that turned the game around for the Tigers and allowed them to gain enough momentum to take the lead and chase Gray out of the game.

Gray reflected on the tail end of his performance following the game on Friday night.

"My pitching strategy was to mix it up early," said Gray. "I wanted to mix all of my pitches up early and slow the hitters' bats down. We had them [LSU] right where we wanted them. I just didn't throw a couple of pitches with conviction like I wanted to."

For Mainieri, seeing Gray do what he was able to do to the LSU lineup was simply incredible for seven innings.

"He threw so many sliders and he could throw them for strikes," said Mainieri. "It was tough for our guys but they never stopped battling." Failed drug test aside, Gray was outstanding on Friday night as he showed class during the game and even after his team was defeated. Baseball fans everywhere can commend his performance in Baton Rouge in perhaps the biggest game of his career thus far.

In the opposite dugout was a player that had the tough task of outpitching one of the best pitchers in the country. LSU sophomore Aaron Nola is regarded as one of the top young arms in the NCAA, but his focus on Friday was solely centered on his matchup with Gray.

There was no worrying about draft projections or calls from scouts as Nola prepared to pitch the most important game of the 2013 season for the Tigers. It's hard to argue that this didn't give him even the slightest advantage heading into Friday's game.

As good as Gray was, Nola was better. The talented right-hander and homegrown talent for the Tigers dominated the Sooners throughout the game on Friday night. He pitched with confidence and efficiency as he went the distance and only threw 102 pitches, compared to the 118 that the phenomenal Gray threw in his seven-plus innings.

Nola finished his complete game masterpiece by only allowing two hits with six strikeouts, while shutting out the Sooners. What is truly astounding is the fact that Nola faced only two more batters (29) than he had to in the game.

There was only one minor hiccup in Nola's performance and it came in the fifth inning when Oklahoma's Matt Oberste led off the inning with a double. At that point, it seemed as though Nola locked in and executed perfectly to keep the go-ahead run from crossing the plate.

College coaches sometimes only ever dream of having a pitcher like Aaron Nola. Lucky for him, Paul Mainieri doesn't have to dream because it is already a reality. Mainieri knows he saw a great pitching matchup on Friday night, but he wouldn't trade Nola for anyone in the country.

"Our guys have looked forward to facing Gray but people might forget that we had a pretty good pitcher as well," said Mainieri. "I wouldn't trade him for anyone in the world. He was fantastic tonight and we've seen this before. He pitched a typical game for him."

With the pitching duel that was occurring between the lines, the atmosphere in Alex Box Stadium on Friday night was unlike anything most fans have ever experienced. From the first pitch, it was like the stadium was on the brink of erupting with excitement, simply waiting for any moment to cheer on their Tigers. Mainieri explained that games like Friday's are why LSU is a premier place to play college baseball.

"Anybody that hasn't been to Alex Box Stadium for a game like this needs to put it on their bucket list," said Mainieri. "You haven't lived until you experience this with the crowd and the atmosphere. It was an awesome ball game."

Overall, there wasn't much more that could have been seen on Friday night to prove just how great of a matchup it was between LSU and Oklahoma, as well as Nola and Gray. In college baseball there aren't many opportunities to see two pitchers go at it between the lines like Gray and Nola did on Friday night. Pitching was the name of the game in the series opener, and it certainly lived up to expectations.

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