AJ Labas wasn’t going to stay the midweek starter forever.
The freshman took the ball each week, regaining the arm strength he’d lost to back surgery along the way, knowing that LSU would call his number for a critical start sometime down the line.
That moment came Sunday in a rubber match LSU had to have against the most fearsome lineup in the Southeastern Conference on a pristine afternoon for offense.
Labas delivered with six stellar innings of one-run ball and LSU ceased control with four runs in the fifth inning. Arkansas made a charge with four runs of its own in the seventh inning, but a resilient appearance from Matt Beck went the final three innings to help LSU hold on for a 7-5 win and clinch the series at Alex Box Stadium.
“He’s been waiting for his chance to pitch on the weekend,” LSU coach Paul Mainieri said. “He got it against the best hitting team in the league and he pitched magnificently.”
Mainieri hinted earlier this week that he liked the matchup of Labas against Arkansas’ homer-happy lineup, invoking the pair of gems Eric Walker authored against the Hogs last season. Labas, however, didn’t know he was getting the start until pre-game warm-ups on Saturday afternoon.
“I was like give me the ball and let’s go,” Labas said. “It was time for me to prove myself that I’m able to handle pitching in the SEC. At the same time I went out there and did what I’ve done all year, and think of it as just another midweek game even though it’s not.”
Labas did just that, pounding the bottom portion of the strike zone and changing speeds between his three pitches. A more-right-handed Arkansas lineup neutralized his changeup to a degree, but he held Arkansas to four hits and struck out three without issuing a walk.
The work is far from done for LSU (28-20, 12-12 SEC) to ensure it winds up on the right side of the NCAA Tournament bubble, but taking a series from SEC West-leading Arkansas (33-15, 14-10 SEC) is a big step in the right direction. The Tigers have now won seven straight regular-season series against the Hogs.
“We’re still going to take a run at the Western Division title,” Mainieri said. “That’s what we’re shooting for. We’re within striking distance. These guys have two tough series and we have another series at home. Who knows, maybe we’ll save our best baseball for last.”
Both starting pitchers were in control early on what felt like a sleepy afternoon at the Box after two drama-filled nights. The two lineups combined for just three hits and one runner in scoring position through the first three innings. The bats began to wake up after that.
LSU broke through first on back-to-back ringing doubles from Zach Watson and Hunter Feduccia in the fourth off right-hander Isaiah Campbell. Arkansas quickly tied it one inning later on a long solo home run to right from Heston Kjerstad.
A one-out single from Hal Hughes in the fifth sparked a hit barrage that chased Campbell from the game. Beau Jordan followed with a double. Antoine Duplantis and Austin Bain chased them home with consecutive run-scoring knocks.
The rally continued against lefty Evan Lee, who came in to relieve Campbell. Daniel Cabrera lifted a sacrifice fly and Watson capped the four-run frame with a two-out RBI single to left. Hughes added an RBI single one inning later — his third hit of the afternoon — to stretch the lead to 6-1.
LSU would’ve been happy to let Labas keep on cruising along, but his body tightened up during that 20-minute half inning. Labas’ velocity suddenly dropped to 83 mph, but he managed to work around a leadoff single anyway. Mainieri then had no choice to pull him after 77 pitches.
“It’s pretty encouraging,” Labas laughed of retiring the top third of the Arkansas order without the ability to throw 85 mph. Mainieri relayed that the Arkansas hitters thought he was throwing all changeups. “That’s what it felt like coming out of my hand,” Labas added. “I was trying to throw fastballs but I had nothing behind them.”
Nick Bush, who blew the game on Friday night, came on and left without recording an out. Beck nearly limited the damage to two runs, but a routine chopper went through Bain’s legs at first base to bring home two more runs and cut the lead to a single run, but Beck shook it off and stranded the tying run on base.
Bain quickly made amends for the rare misplay. He led off the bottom of the seventh with a double to right and scored an insurance run on another RBI single from Watson, who had three hits.
“I felt for Beck,” Bain said. “I let him down. I let my team down. I just wanted to do anything I could to make up for it, so that was my mentality. It was more like a determination to pay back Beck for getting me out of that.”
Beck, who’d struggled mightily of late, returned in the eighth inning to navigate through the heart of the Arkansas order and slammed the door in the ninth. Considering the tailspin LSU was heading toward when he entered, a solid case can be made his three hitless innings saved not only the game, but LSU’s season.
LSU will continue this eight-game homestand against McNeese State on Wednesday night before taking on Alabama next weekend. First pitch is set for 6:30 p.m. on Wednesday.
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