Glenn Guilbeau / Gannett Louisiana
BATON ROUGE LSU is three wins from Omaha two if you count pitcher Aaron Nola's next start as an automatic victory.
And that would not be a reach. Nola won his fourth consecutive start in the month of May Saturday night in typically routine fashion, putting his team on automatic pilot yet again in a 5-1, NCAA Regional victory over Houston in front of 10,436 at Alex Box Stadium.
The Tigers (46-14-1) play at 7 p.m. Sunday for the NCAA Regional title against the winner of Sunday's 2 p.m. elimination game between Houston (45-16) and Southeastern Louisiana (38-24). Should LSU lose that game, the two teams will meet again at 7 p.m. Monday. If the Tigers advance, they will host a best-of-three Super Regional Friday through Saturday or Sunday at the Box.
Nola (11-1) won for the 11th time out of 16 starts, and the Tigers won for the 15th time out of those 16. The junior right-hander from Baton Rouge allowed four hits, one run and one walk in seven and a third innings and struck out seven. He was seriously challenged only in the second and fifth.
After LSU took a 1-0 lead in the top of the second on a double by Sean McMullen and an RBI single by Conner Hale, the Cougars roughed Nola up for three hits and a run in the bottom of the second, tying it 1-1 on a one-out, RBI single by Michael Pyeatt. Nola allowed a single to Caleb Barker and walked ninth batter Landon Appling to load the bases. Would he struggle as he did last season in his NCAA Regional opener against Sam Houston State? Nope.
Nola got Kyle Survance to pop out in foul territory beyond third base. That was the Cougars' chance. They went out in order in the third and fourth as the Tigers took a 3-1 lead in the top of the third off Houston starter Jake LeMoine on back-to-back RBI singles by McMullen and Hale after Mark Laird walked to lead off and Jake Fraley singled.
Houston's last threat was in the fifth. After one out, Appling singled off Nola, stole second and reached third on a ground out. But Nola struck out No. 2 hitter Josh Vidales to end the inning.
LSU scored two in the top of the seventh for the 5-1 advantage on consecutive RBI singles by Laird and Alex Bregman off LeMoine (6-7) after Ibarra singled and Kramer Robertson walked to open the inning.
The Cougars were in the Nola Zone. Nola retired the next seven in a row and left the game with one out in the eighth after 104 pitches for reliever Zac Person. Joe Broussard pitched the ninth, and it was over.