Much has happened to LSU redshirt junior pitcher AJ Labas in between the two complete games in his collegiate career.
Labas, who threw his first career complete game in an 8-0 win over Lamar on April 28, 2018, has endured back surgery and then shoulder surgery that cost him the entire 2019 season.
Fast-forward Friday to the second game of LSU’s road series with No. 10 Ole Miss. It was Labas who delivered his and LSU’s first complete game of the season in a 7-2 victory that helped the Tigers clinch their second Southeastern Conference series of the season and first over the Rebels in Swayze Field since 2014.
It was also the third complete game in the SEC this season, joining Vanderbilt’s Jack Leiter who fired a no-hitter in a 5-0 win over South Carolina on March 20 and Ole Miss’ Doug Nikhazy who threw one-hit 9-0 shutout at Mississippi State last Saturday.
Nikhazy (4-2), who won SEC Pitcher of the Week honors on Monday, was charged with Friday’s loss to the Tigers (26-14, 6-11 in SEC). He allowed two runs (one earned) on seven hits and struck out 11.
The last time an LSU pitcher threw a nine-inning complete game in league play was Alex Lange. He had consecutive complete games in a 3-2 loss to South Carolina on May 5, 2017 and a week later in a 4-0 win over Auburn on May 11.
“I felt like after the first inning, just getting those nerves out, the second inning to the last inning, I felt I was getting better and better,” said Labas, who threw a career-high 126 pitches (86 for strikes), allowed 10 hits, walked one and struck out six. “Just making my pitches and making sure I kept the ball down, kept the batters off balance. I felt I was getting stronger and stronger each inning.”
The complete game from Labas (3-0) enabled the Tigers to have all of their pitchers available in Saturday’s 12 noon finale which Mainieri expects to treat like a midweek game and throw a bevy of pitchers, possibly starting with freshman Will Helmers
“He’s been doing it all year,” Mainieri said of Labas. “He had one below par performance against Louisiana Tech in his first start and since then he’s been automatic. He pitched great. He pitched courageously. He doesn’t have overpowering stuff; he just makes great pitches.
“You have to play good defense behind him because he’s not going strikeout a ton of batters. He makes big pitches and if he gets in jams he doesn’t give up. He just competes all the way through and he’s just been a big leader for our team. He and Landon (Marceaux) have just been amazing for us all year.”
Nearly a week after lifting Labas following a pair of seventh-inning hits against South Carolina, a game LSU ultimately lost 4-2, Mainieri wasn’t about to make the same mistake.
“Last week I took him out in the seventh inning after he gave up a couple of hits,” Mainieri said. “Obviously, I’ve regretted it ever since, so I wasn’t taking the ball away from him tonight. The score was 2-1 going to the ninth inning. It was going to be his ball game and he was either going to win it or lose it and he wanted the ball. Fortunately, we got some runs and made it a little easier for him.”
LSU provided Labas with an additional cushion, padding its 2-1 lead with five runs in the top of the ninth. Left fielder Gavin Dugas provided the signature moment, jumping all over a first-pitch off-speed pitch and sending it over the left field fence for a grand slam and 6-1 advantage. It was a team-high 11th homer for Dugas, who has homered eight times in SEC play.
“I thought there was a good chance it may hit the wall,” Dugas said of his blast. “I knew there was a little topspin on the ball. I was trying to get to first a little quicker than most home run-type swings. Luckily, it went on our side and went over and I’m very thankful for that.”
LSU tacked on another run in the ninth on second baseman Drew Bianco’s run-scoring infield single.
Labas allowed a pair of hits in the Ole Miss half of the ninth, including an RBI single, but he got a strikeout for the second out and a fly out to center fielder Giovanni DiGiacomo to end the game.
Ole Miss coach Mike Bianco tipped his cap to Labas.
“There are nights when the other guy is really good, he had a special night on the mound,” Bianco said of Labas. “We had a tough time figuring him out. If we got a hit we couldn’t mount much. We didn’t have many opportunities to score. We didn’t have enough runners, and we didn’t have enough good at-bats.””
LSU snapped a scoreless tie with a pair of runs in the sixth inning when the Tigers were able to execute their version of small ball and executed a couple of bunts.
DiGiacomo’s safety squeeze bunt produced a run when Dugas scored. Following two straight outs, the Tigers made it 2-0 when first baseman Tre’ Morgan’s infield single scored third baseman Cade Doughty.
Ole Miss (27-12, 9-8) got a run back in the bottom half of the inning on Kevin Graham’s two-out, 438-foot solo homer to straightaway centerfield to cut LSU’s lead to 2-1. Hayden Durnhurst followed with a double off the top of the left field fence, but Labas escaped further trouble with a strikeout of Justin Bench.
Morgan (3 for 5) was one four players for LSU with multiple hits which also included Crews (2 for 4) and Dugas and Doughty (2 for 5 each)..
“Sometimes we’ve lost some heartbreaking games and sometimes that can demoralize you, but it hasn’t demoralized these kids,” Mainieri said. “They’ve continued to play hard. They’ve believed me when I’ve told them they’re getting better, they’re hanging in there. We’ve tried not to pay attention to the standings and just taken it one game at a time and just keep battling.”