Top-seeded LSU moved within one win of the Super Regional with a 5-1 victory against No. 2 seed Houston on Saturday at Alex Box Stadium.
The Tigers broke open a 1-1 tie in the third inning with a pair of runs and rode ace Aaron Nola the rest of the way to clinch the perfect start to the Baton Rouge regional. LSU will aim to advance to the next round of the NCAA Tournament against either the Cougars or Southeastern Louisiana on Sunday at 7 p.m.
LSU owns the nation's longest winning streak with 10 straight victories, and the Tigers have now won 14 straight Regional games at home.
"We're confident in this place," said LSU coach Paul Mainieri. "The fans are such a great part of the atmosphere here, and our players are very inspired to go out there and get the job done tomorrow night."
After each team scored a run in the second inning, the Tigers jumped ahead with a two-spot in the third.
Mark Laird opened the inning with a walk, then tagged to second on a pop fly to center field by Alex Bregman. Jake Fraley's single to left field put runners on the corners, and consecutive base hits by Sean McMullen and Conner Hale brought in both runs.
"Before my at-bats, Coach Mainieri was telling me not to do too much," Hale said. "I took that approach, and just hit them where they weren't."
That was all the cushion Nola would need, as he dealt another quality outing, surrendering just one earned run on four hits with seven strikeouts in 7 1/3 innings.
Houston did get to him for a run in a long second inning that forced Nola to throw 28 pitches. Justin Montemayor reached on a dribbler down the third base line to open the inning. Two more groundouts moved him to third, and Michael Pyeatt brought him in with a single to center.
The Cougars continued to work Nola as Caleb Barker put runners on the corers with a single to right. Landon Appling drew a walk to load the bases, but a diving catch by Bregman in foul territory stranded all three and got Nola out of the inning.
"That was an unbelievable catch. He covered a lot of ground on that. He kind of reminded me of Austin Nola a little bit," Aaron said to a chorus of laughs.
Nola settled into cruise control from there, retiring eight straight before a one-out single in the fifth. He would leave that runner on third, striking out Josh Vidales to end the inning.
He retired the side in order in both the sixth and seventh innings, and then induced a pop fly to the only batter he faced in the eighth. Only one Cougar reached base after that second inning, as Nola put down 17 of the last 18 batters he faced.
The Tigers are now 15-1 in games started by Nola this season.
"Even when this guy isn't at his best, when he doesn't dominate from first pitch to last, he still does spectacular things," Mainieri said. "He struggled through that second inning, but somehow someway he always finds the fortitude to get out of it…
"Then he settles in, and all the sudden you look up six innings later and he's thrown six zeroes in a row. He's just one of the most amazing competitors I've ever been around."
Nola didn't need the insurance, but LSU provided him with a bit more cushion, scoring two more runs in the seventh.
Christian Ibarra's single got it started, and Kramer Robertson walked to put two on for Laird. He singled to right field for the inning's first run, and Bregman did the same to give the Tigers a four-run lead.
Those LSU hitters just wanted to be sure Saturday wasn't Nola's last appearance in front of the home crowd.
"Aaron Nola's really special on the mound, and we're going to try to get him another start," Bregman said.
Zac Person — who worked a perfect inning of relief Friday — replaced Nola but walked a batter with two outs and surrendered a single in the next at-bat. But Person struck out Montemayor to end the inning.
Joe Broussard took over in the ninth and closed out the Cougars in order to seal the win. The Tigers haven't lost a game this season — 40-0 — they've led after eight innings.
"I've got a lot of confidence in all of our bullpen," Mainieri said. "They're all doing a tremendous job…We've got plenty of bullpen left."
Kyle Bouman will take the mound Sunday to try and send LSU to the next round. Only once since the NCAA Tournament moved to this format in 1999 have the Tigers lost their third game after starting 2-0.
They've also advanced all in all eight regionals they opened with consecutive victories.
But LSU doesn't just have its sights set on making a Super Regional. The Tigers also know they're three wins away from the College World Series.
"We don't stop ourselves from thinking that way," Mainieri said. "That's two down and three to go...We're very aware of what the goal is and what it'll take to get there."
Tigers are one win away
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