Freshman right-hander AJ Labas feels a bit more like his old self every time he takes the mound since undergoing back surgery back in December.
LSU hopes that a mechanical tweak recommended by pitching coach Alan Dunn may have the rookie throwing a bit more like his old self, too.
Labas will take the ball on Tuesday night against Nicholls State as LSU continues to develop him as its midweek starter with an eye toward more critical assignments to come if and when LSU reaches the postseason.
“AD and I have been talking, and we think there’s something he can do a little bit different to increase his velocity,” LSU coach Paul Mainieri said. “I’m anxious to see if that happens tomorrow night. I know they’ve been working on it all week.”
There’s been a noticeable uptick in Labas fastball velocity from 85-87 mph when he first returned to 88-89 mph in recent outings. He’s never been a power pitcher, instead relying on impeccable control and a three-pitch mix to get outs, but his fastball was more in the 90-92 mph range before the injury.
Labas revealed that the adjustments mainly center around his lower body and how he pushed off the rubber while delivering a given pitch.
“Physically I’m where I want to be, but mechanically there’s still some things I want to work out with AD,” Labas said. “My front hip is flying open. It’s just about using my legs more. Once I figure that out, I feel like my velo will just up. This happened to me in high school also, so once I get mechanically sounds, it’ll go back to where it used to be.”
A starter throughout his high school career, Labas feels he’s benefited greatly from being able to settle into a routine as LSU’s midweek starter. It’s a luxury LSU hasn’t afforded many pitchers in years past.
Southeastern Conference games must be treated as the priority, but given the overall depth of the LSU bullpen — more on that below — LSU can groom Labas as a fourth starter without leaving the relief corps too thin on the weekend.
Also, even if his velocity picks up a bit by season’s end, he doesn’t profile as a fit for that late-game reliever role in the way someone like Zack Hess did last season.
“When you look at AJ, he’s a starting pitcher,” Dunn said. “From a mound presence, from a pitch selection, he just brings that. Here’s a guy with three pitches that he can command. That’s the start of anyone you feel can be a starting pitcher. As this thing continues to go, were possibly going to need more than three starters. He fits better in that role and we need to develop starters.”
LET’S GO STREAKING
The LSU bullpen has quietly remained a dominant force as LSU has weathered injuries to key position players and uneven play of late.
It’s been a surprising strength of the team all season considering the lack of contributors who returned from a season ago, but the relief corps have been superb as arms like lefty John Kodros, freshman Devin Fontenot and even converted starter Todd Peterson have settled into roles of late.
No LSU reliever has allowed a run dating back to March 21, when AJ Labas — technically a reliever since he came in after Nick Storz started and went one inning — allowed four runs to Tulane in the third inning.
Since that point, LSU relievers have worked 25.1 scoreless innings in a row. They’ve allowed only 10 hits during that span while racking up 30 strikeouts.
“I think it just shows the genius of Alan Dunn,” Mainieri said. “We’ve spent a lot of time talking about different guys and finding situations where they can be effective. He’s found a role for Kodros. He’s found a role for Peterson. Nick Bush continues to evolve into his role. Fontenot, we know what he can do for us. Matt Beck has been tremendous. I think they all feel good about where they are now.”
The emergence of Bush in particular has saved Mainieri from having to use Austin Bain in recent weeks as he became LSU’s starting second baseman out of injury necessity. LSU’s closer hasn’t pitched since March 18 against Missouri.
“Now I’m worried he’s rusty,” Mainieri laughed.
TIGER NETS SEC HONOR
Freshman right-hander Ma’Khail Hilliard was named the SEC Co-Freshman of the Week, the league office announced, sharing the honor with Ole Miss infielder Tyler Keenan.
Hilliard was brilliant in yet another rubber match Saturday, shutting out Mississippi State for six innings while allowing three hits and striking out nine.
The rookie from Central is now 6-1 and leads the SEC in ERA (0.76). His six wins are tied for the most in the league and he ranks No. 4 in opponent batting average (.184).
LSU IN THE POLLS
LSU moved up multiple spots in three of the major polls while dropping in the fourth after a 2-2 week in which it won a home series against Mississippi State.
Here’s where the Tigers stand in each of the polls. As always, last week’s rankings are in parenthesis:
D1Baseball 17 (21)
Baseball America 17 (21)
Perfect Game 18 (20)
College Baseball Newspaper 21 (19)