An LSU team that had to replace its entire weekend rotation from a season ago suddenly appears poised to begin Southeastern Conference play with four reliable starters.
The latest to emerge is a freshman who seems to only be getting better with each outing.
AJ Labas cruised through six shutout innings against a patient, powerful South Alabama lineup in the first extended outing of his brief career. LSU capitalized on his efforts by closing out the pre-conference slate with a 9-4 win at Alex Box Stadium on a chilly Wednesday night.
“AJ was just terrific tonight,” LSU coach Paul Mainieri said. “Labas was a great matchup for them. I knew that going in because of how many walks this team draws. He just pitched great and gave us a really good chance to win.”
LSU (12-6) will now take a modest three-game winning streak into the SEC opener against Missouri on Friday night. For all their perceived struggles, the Tigers are just one game off the pace of last year’s club (13-5) at the start of the 30-game league slate.
Labas is the latest revelation for a pitching staff that’s improved by leaps and bounds since a disastrous opening weekend. Working on a strict pitch count, it took him just 74 pitches to complete six innings.
“It was nice, finally getting back out there and being able to extend,” Labas said. “I feel like a starting pitcher again instead of just going out there and throwing two or three inning here and there.”
He scattered five hits and didn’t issue a walk, per usual at this point, against a lineup that’d drawn the third-most in the country coming into the game. South Alabama stacked its lineup with six left-handed hitters, but Labas kept them off balance all night with his trusty changeup.
LSU scored in the first inning for a seventh consecutive game to take an early lead. Two walks and a bunt single loaded the bases for Hunter Feduccia, who dunked a two-run single into left-center field. Hal Hughes extended the lead with an RBI single to right in the third.
“It’s nice when you get a lead, and it puts a lot of pressure on the other team defensively,” Mainieri said. “Hopefully, as we go into this weekend, that can be a focus of ours defensively as well as offensively.”
The Tigers broke the game open in the fifth after loading the bases with one out. Bryce Jordan and Chris Reid each drew walks, forcing home two runs, and Zach Watson chopped a two-run single down the left-field line.
Despite the lengthy inning, Labas returned in the sixth. He struck out the side around a one-out double, including a fanning of future first-round pick Travis Swaggerty on a nasty changeup. He struck out five on the evening.
“The changeup has been my go-to pitch every since I’ve started coming back from the injury,” Labas said. “Right now I just have the best feel for my changeup instead of my slider. That was the way it was last year too.”
Bryce Jordan tacked on one more run with a two-out single to left in the sixth. Starting as the designated hitter, Jordan went 2-for-4 with two RBI and a pair of runs scored in his return to the lineup.
South Alabama broke up the shutout against the LSU bullpen in the seventh inning, but the Tigers got the run right back. Antoine Duplantis singled home a run to pick up career hit No. 200 in purple and gold.
Things got a bit hairy in the eighth inning as some LSU relievers struggled mightily to find the strike zone. South Alabama scored three times before Matt Beck managed to strand two runners in scoring position. It would’ve been even closer than that were it not for a colossal base-running blunder.
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