Seeing Josh Smith’s name at the top of the order was an occasion befitting fireworks, and he’d provide some in due time, but it wasn’t the only welcomed revelation for LSU on Tuesday night.
AJ Labas rediscovered his swing-and-miss stuff, too.
Labas, who’d struggled mightily of late, struck out nine en route to a complete game shutout and Smith cranked a solo home run in his somewhat-surprising return to help LSU secure a much-needed 8-0 victory over Lamar at Alex Box Stadium and snap a four-game losing streak.
“Honestly I came out here and wanted to just two two-or-three at-bats and see some pitches,” said Smith, who was originally only going to play five innings. “Never in a million years would I have thought I was going to hit a home run. It’s crazy.”
A friendly, inward-blowing wind helped Labas’ cause as he pounded the strike zone, per usual, but he appeared to have a much sharper slider and a bit more giddy-up on his fastball. Labas hadn’t recorded a strikeout in either of his previous two starts and had been tagged for eight runs in his past four innings.
LSU coach Paul Mainieri has been blunt in his assessment of Labas’ recent struggles, pointing squarely to pedestrian velocity and control that wasn’t as pinpoint as it had been earlier this season. The right-hander rose to the occasion and went the distance on a night when LSU desperately needed length to rest an over-exposed bullpen.
“I feel like I was just executing and locating my pitches better tonight,” Labas said. “My changeup was really good, which it wasn’t last week. My slider was a lot sharper and broke a lot later. Me and (LSU pitching coach Alan Dunn) worked on all that stuff during a bullpen session in South Carolina on Sunday, and it seems like that bullpen translated into the game today.”
“Once AJ gets going, and he’s in a groove, he’s pretty tough,” Mainieri added. “We needed it. We needed him to pitch like that desperately and he answered the bell for us.”
The only other complete game by an LSU pitcher this season belongs to Ma’Khail Hilliard in a seven-inning game against Vanderbilt. Labas’ gem is the first complete game shutout by a Tiger since Alex Lange blanked Auburn last May. It hadn’t been done in a midweek game since Tyler Jones struck out 15 against UNO in 2011.
Getting a win and adding Smith back into the mix is a welcomed boost for a LSU (25-17) coming off an 0-4 week that saw them drop out of every major top-25 poll for the first time in 125 weeks.
“Can’t lie to you, it was nice to get the feeling of winning a baseball game again,” Mainieri said. “Seems like a long time since we’ve done that, and obviously we needed to win this game. We needed to get our confidence back a little bit and feel good about ourselves. We’ve got challenging games ahead and we needed to get this one.”
Smith returned to lineup at third base after missing 38 games with a back injury and hadn’t seen live pitching since before a setback two weeks ago, so naturally he played get LSU an early lead.
After flying out in his first at-bat, the sophomore smoked a 2-2 fastball for a single to right field in the third inning, chasing Brandt Broussard to third. Antoine Duplantis lifted a sacrifice fly to get LSU on the board.
Labas had faced the minimum through three innings, but Lamar loaded the bases with nobody out for the middle of the order in the fourth. Labas came back with back-to-back strikeouts and induced a line drive right at shortstop Hal Hughes to complete quite the Houdini act.
“That inning was a complete mess,” Labas said. “I wasn’t convicting my pitches anymore. I was babying everything. After that AD and I just made a game plan to keep my arm speed and be aggressive. The rest is history after that.”
The next couple innings went much more smoothly thanks to fantastic plays behind Labas. Hughes made a play ranging up the middle and uncorked a perfect throw off a jump skip behind the second base bag. Austin Bain turned in a diving stop at first base and touched the bag to end the sixth inning.
LSU doubled its lead in the sixth as Smith led off the frame with a solo shot through the breeze to right field. The team mobbed him once he made it around the bases and Paul Mainieri gave him a hug back in the dugout.
“It was a special moment,” Smith said. “I don’t really remember anything until I got to home plate and I saw Antoine right there. He didn’t even helmet tap me. He just put out his arms and hugged me. Then I got through there and gave Coach a big hug. He had a big smile on his face. That’s something I’ll remember for a while.”
Bain chipped in an RBI single later in the inning and the Tigers blew the game open against the Lamar bullpen in the seventh. Hunter Feduccia and Smith drew walks, and Duplantis singled to drive in his second run of the night. Daniel Cabrera followed with a two-run double to left-center field and Jake Slaughter poured it on with a two-run single in the eighth.
Feeling a bit better about themselves, LSU will depart Wednesday to begin a crucial three-game series at Ole Miss on Thursday night with first place in the Southeastern Conference western division potentially on the line.