LSU figured if its 2021 season and retiring head coach Paul Mainieri’s career was a loss away from ending Sunday afternoon, then the Tigers would go down swinging.
Instead, 12 hits by eight players and a much-welcomed consistent pitching performance by starter AJ Labas elevated LSU to a 9-4 victory over Gonzaga in an NCAA tournament elimination game that advanced the Tigers to the Eugene Regional finals later Sunday night.
LSU (36-23) was set to play Oregon (39-14) at 9 p.m. CT. If the Tigers win that game, it will meet the Ducks again at 9 p.m. CT Monday night with the winner advancing to a Super Regional to play the winner (likely Tennessee) of the Knoxville Regional.
Gonzaga, champions of the West Coast Conference, ended the season with a 34-19 record.
After the Zags’ pitching staff ace Alek Jacob threw a complete game four-hit 3-0 shutout against the Tigers on Friday, LSU’s challenge wasn’t quite as great Sunday.
Gonzaga sent Alec Gomez and his 5.48 ERA to the mound as the starter. Gomez, who entered the game having given up the most runs (30) of any Zags’ pitcher this season, immediately showed why.
LSU erased a 2-0 deficit with four runs on four hits in the bottom of the first inning as the Tigers almost went through their entire batting order. First baseman Tre’ Morgan’s RBI double and third baseman Cade Doughty’s two-run triple for a 4-2 lead set the tone for LSU’s offensive aggressiveness.
Gomez finally got yanked after opening the second inning giving up consecutive doubles to LSU catcher Alex Milazzo and right fielder Dylan Crews (who drove in Milazzo) followed by a walk to designated hitter Zach Arnold.
Michael Spellacy replaced Gomez, and LSU tagged him for two more runs in the third before he started a string of two innings that included inducing two rally-killing double plays.
LSU starter Labas, who had an earned run average of 15.00 in his last four starts before Sunday, got through a shaky first inning. He started the game allowing a leadoff double to Zags’ shortstop Ernie Yake, hit third baseman Brett Harris with a pitch and then walked catcher Tyler Rando to load the bases.
Yet Labas escaped allowing just a pair of runs that came on RBI groundouts by Gonzaga first baseman Andrew Orzel and right fielder Grayson Sterling. Center fielder Guthrie Morrison flied out to end the threat.
After Labas’ near first-inning implosion, he settled in. At one point, he retired 10 consecutive batters until the Zags had a two-out, one-run rally in the top of the sixth to cut LSU’s lead to 8-4.
The Tigers’ response in bottom of the sixth was Arnold’s solo homer. Labas was pulled at the end of the eighth after allowing six hits and four runs while striking out eight and walking two.
“I charted the (LSU-Gonzaga) game Friday night,” Labas said, “so I just wanted to go out there, fill up the (strike) zone, make them put the ball in play and let my defense work.”