Sunday has been a day of unrest for LSU so far this season.
The Tigers took it on the chin in series finales against Notre Dame and Texas by a cumulative margin of 22-4. LSU coach Paul Mainieri didn’t place the full blame for those setbacks on No. 3 starter Todd Peterson, but a pair of sub-par starts had him mulling a change.
An opportunity to hand the ball to one of LSU’s most-heralded arms made his decision all the more easier. Freshman right-hander AJ Labas will make his collegiate debut on Sunday against Southeastern, Mainieri announced Thursday.
“I wouldn’t run him out there if he wasn’t healthy enough,” Mainieri said. “His endurance won’t be great. We’ll see how much he can do, but he’s ready for it. He’s not going to be as good as he’s going to be later in the year, but it’s time for him to get out there and we’ve done everything we can do to prepare him.”
The start feels like it’s been an eternity in the making for Labas. The rookie has been grinding since undergoing surgery on his lower back on Dec. 20.
The two months since have been featured daily core strengthening work with LSU trainer Cory Couture as he works his way back into pitching shape.
“It’s been a long recovery process,” Labas said. “It’s been a grind for months now since December. I’ve been in the training room with Cory every day doing core work and arm strengthening work just to get back to where I was.”
Labas showed the talent that got his drafted by the New York Mets during fall scrimmages, despite nagging back discomfort that required treatment in the form of a cortisone shot.
He likely would’ve been a strong candidate to begin the year in the rotation had the injury not flared up again in December. Once it did, both he and the staff felt it best to nip the problem in the bud, so Labas underwent surgery in his hometown of Jacksonville before returning to campus in January.
“It got worse and worse, so I felt like the best option was just to get surgery,” Labas said. “I figured we might as well fix it now instead of having it hurt all season.”
LSU had hoped Labas would be able to make his debut earlier this week, but Mainieri and LSU pitching coach Alan Dunn called an audible after Labas struggled in a simulated game last Friday. He looked much sharper in his next session on Tuesday afternoon.
Now comes the point in the process when it’s time to see what happens when the lights come on for real.
“You can simulate all you want, but it’s still not the same as a game,” Dunn said. “So we’re still building with this kid. We just feel like at this point he’s ready to take that next step, and that next step is to get in a game. We’re going to give him that opportunity, and once that adrenaline gets going, suddenly you start to feel like a pitcher instead of a guy who is rehabbing.”
Nobody is expecting to see a finished product the first time out.
Labas likely won’t recapture the low-90s fastball he featured in high school until he pitches his way into better shape. His velocity topped out in the upper 80s during the fall, and that’s likely where it’ll be against the Lions on Sunday.
But that doesn’t mean he won’t be able to pitch effectively. What makes the staff so anxious to get Labas back on the mound is his ability to throw his fastball, slider and changeup — his best pitch, by all accounts — for strikes in any count.
“He’s not going to go out and burn up the radar gun on Sunday,” Mainieri said, “but he’ll be able to mix his pitches and get through it. He’s got a good changeup and breaking ball, and he’s got good command of his fastball, so you get away with not having great velocity when you have those three things.
“And I think each time he goes out there he’ll get better and better.”
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