On a Friday chilled by blustery winds out of the north, Florida coach Kevin O’Sullivan eyed and appraised LSU ace Aaron Nola’s pregame bullpen session.
Three hours later, after Nola notched his fourth consecutive complete game, the sixth-year Gators coach recalled that his last bit of scouting was a hint of what later unfolded in the Tigers’ 5-0 victory in front of 6,951 at Alex Box Stadium.
“I don’t think he threw a single pitch above the mast,” O’Sullivan said. “He’s got a feel for throwing the ball in the low part of the (strike) zone. What he’s showing us is a professional strike. It’s at the knees, and he threw a quality session.”
Nola lowered his outing to 1.94, but is outing wasn’t befitting of a pitcher who averaged 10 strikeouts per game. The sophomore notched only 12 first-pitch strikes, and recorded 16 outs on fly balls. Nola didn’t tally his first strikeout until the top the seventh inning, when Josh Tobias watched a fastball tail in at his knees.
Despite the low strikeout rate, the Gators weren’t eager to critique an outing in which Nola recorded his second shutout in three weeks, allowing just four hits and walking one on an efficient 105 pitches before watching Justin Shafer fly out to right field to wrap up his night.
“He is a strikeout guy, but we pride our offense on not striking out,” Shafer said. “He threw great, hit spots and got a lot of pitches over for strikes. Whenever that happens, it’s going to be tough.”
O’Sullivan said any spotty location was the byproduct of cold, dry conditions, which can be detrimental to grips on breaking pitches — a chief tool in Nola’s work belt.
“When it gets windy, your hands get dry,” O’Sullivan said. “It makes tougher to control the ball, especially for a sinkerball guy like him.”
Nicking the Catholic High graduate early would have been a boon to Florida, which entered the series batting .278 during conference play to rank third in the Southeastern Conference and posting roughly 4.5 runs per game.
On his first pitch in the top of the third, Nola plunked Tobias in the back, then gave up an infield single from Harrison Bader to put two aboard with no outs. The Gators frittered away the opportunity.
A bunt just in front of home plate by Cody Dent allowed catcher Ty Ross to gun a throw to third to get Tobias. Leadoff man Richie Martin lashed a 2-1 breaking ball, but watched shortstop Alex Bregman squat and snare it. Finally, Nola fielded his own position ably on a first-pitch chopper back to the mound from Casey Turgeon, strading runners at second and third during a span where he retired 10-consecutive batters.
“It’s not like I felt he was unhittable,” Florida catcher Taylor Gushue said. “He had great stuff, and sometimes he spotted up, and other times that he didn’t. He didn’t have his best stuff, but he still took the mound and got the job done.”
And from the fifth inning forward, Nola threw first-pitch strikes and got ahead in the count against 10 of the final 16 batters he faced, primarily on his curveball.
“He pulled a little bit against right-handers,” O’Sullivan said. “But against left-handers, he threw some backdoor breaking balls that were outstanding.”
Shuffling into the warmer confines of the visitors’ locker room, Florida confirmed that Nola’s reputation matched its prior billing — even if it only came by word of mouth.
“I really haven’t seen him pitch, but you hear great things about him,” Gushue said. “To (throw) a complete game against another SEC (team) is impressive, and there’s not a whole lot to nitpick. That’s pretty impressive in and of itself.”