LSU unable to maintain early momentum, finds itself in pivotal final game of series needing win over Alabama

LSU left fielder Gavin Dugas (6) celebrates the first of his two home runs in Saturday's game against Alabama. The Crimson Tide won, 6-5. Photo courtesy LSU athletics.

It appeared to be the building block LSU could use in making headway in clinching its Southeastern Conference Western Division series with Alabama.

Back-to-back homers from right fielder Dylan Crews and left fielder Gavin Dugas in the bottom of the first inning provided opening spark for the Tigers in Saturday’s game two.

And then, Alabama’s starting pitcher Dylan Smith found his groove with six scoreless innings while the Crimson Tide collected 13 hits for the second straight game off LSU pitching in recording a 6-5 victory before a crowd of 6,912 at Alex Box Stadium.

With LSU’s NCAA tournament hopes on life support, the Tigers (31-10 overall, 10-16) desperately need a win in Sunday’s series-deciding game 3 at 2 p.m. Senior right-hander Ma’khail Hilliard (4-0, 4.18 ERA), who has been tremendous in his last two SEC starts against then-No. 1 Arkansas and Auburn, gets the nod on Senior Day.

Hopefully, he’ll pitch better than AJ Labas, LSU’s Saturday starter, who got shelled for a third straight start.

Labas (3-2) was done after four innings where he allowed five earned runs on eight hits with no walks and a strikeout. Over his last three league starts covering 13 innings, he’s allowed 19 earned runs for a 13.15 ERA.

“I felt my first and second (innings) were really good, I was throwing the ball in and out and hitting my spots,” Labas said. “After that it was one of those things they were sitting on a certain pitch and I wasn’t throwing my secondary pitches for strikes. I just have to do better.”

Labas didn’t get much offensive support. LSU had six of its game-total nine hits in the first three innings, but produced just three runs and left five runners on base. LSU got just one hit for the next five innings while Alabama built a 6-3 lead until the Tigers scored their final runs in the ninth when first baseman Tre’ Morgan singled and Dugas slammed a two-run, two-out homer.

“It was disappointing, we came out and hit the two home runs in the first inning,” LSU coach Paul Mainieri said. “We seemed to have the pitcher on the ropes, and we let him off the hook. A couple of times we had chances to capitalize, and he settled into a groove. We just hit a lull there for a few innings and that same time they were able to get to our pitcher and kind of turn the game around.

“Their kid was making good pitches and their kid came out of the bullpen (reliever Connor Shamblin) and did a good job. We had a tough time getting it going offensively again. It’s happened two days in a row. We got off to a good start and hit a lull in the middle innings. Just couldn’t get much going offensively.”

Shamblin (4-2) was credited with the win after keeping LSU scoreless until there were two out in the ninth when Dugas hammered his two-run homer. The Tide immediately summoned closer Chase Lee to get LSU third baseman Cade Doughty to fly out to left field to end the game and pick up his seventh save.

“I didn’t really think they were doing a lot to keep us off balanced,” Dugas said of Alabama’s pitching. “I thought we hit a ton of balls hard, right at people. They had a couple of good swings that fell in their favor in the gaps. We have to get ready to come back tomorrow.”

Alabama (29-18, 12-13) took the lead for good with a run in the second and two more in the third against Labas. The Tide’s Caden Rose snapped a 3-3 tie with a run-scoring double down the right-field line and Bryce Eblin followed with an RBI-double to left-center field.

The Tide had pair of doubles and two homers, and were particularly dangerous at the bottom of its lineup with the Nos. 8-9 hitters – Rose and Eblin – combining to go 5-for-8 with two doubles and two RBIs.

LSU received a solid job in relief from Javen Coleman. After he allowed a lead-off homer in the fifth to Zane Denton, Coleman didn’t give up another run over his outing that lasted 4.2 innings.

But Tide reliever Shamblin matched Coleman pitch-for-pitch, much to the delight of Alabama coach Brad Bohannon.

“He came in and steadied the game to give us a chance to catch up and eventually take the lead,” Bohannon said of Shamblin. “Teams pick each other up and our guys did that today. I’m really proud of our entire team.”

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