AJ Labas is ready to start feeling like a starting pitcher again.
The freshman right-hander has impressed in each of his first two outings, but he’s been limited to two- and three-inning stints in starts against Southeastern and UL-Lafayette, respectively.
LSU coach Paul Mainieri now wants to see Labas take the next step and pitch a bit deeper into the game as he gets the ball against South Alabama on Wednesday night at Alex Box Stadium.
“That’s the plan tomorrow,” Mainieri said. “Hopefully he’ll pitch well enough to be able to extend.”
Labas will be on a pitch count somewhere around 70 and LSU hopes that’ll be enough to get him through five innings against a tough, patient South Alabama lineup. That’ll be a welcomed change for a guy who has been a starting pitcher all his life.
“I’m excited about that,” Labas said. “I’ve been looking forward to it for a while now, just getting back out there instead of throwing two or three inning here and there. Just getting out there for an extended period of time and doing what I do.”
South Alabama led the nation in walks drawn last season and accepted 10 free passes in a win against LSU late last season. The Jaguars rank third nationally so far this season having drawn 108 walks in 16 games.
That creates an interesting matchup against Labas, who Mainieri has likened to Eric Walker in terms of his strike-throwing ability. He’s thrown first pitch strikes to an incredible 21 of the 22 hitters he’s faced this season with an overall strike percentage north of 76 percent.
“You’ve just got to go out there and attack the strike zone like I do,” Labas said. “I throw a lot of strikes already. You can’t change to what the other team does. You’ve got to keep your mindset and what you do out there.”
Labas has scattered five hits and a walk across five shutout innings so far this season. He found himself in a bases loaded jam with nobody out in his last outing only to strike out three Cajuns in a row and escape trouble.
“We still haven’t seen the best of him,” Mainieri said. “Once he gets in shape and stronger, I think we’re going to see a little bit more velocity without any sacrifice of his command and his secondary pitches.”
Infielder Josh Smith went to see a back specialist Tuesday, Mainieri said. He’s three weeks into a prescribed four weeks of inactivity after being diagnosed with a stress reaction in his vertebrate.
Smith has already begun doing some light core strengthening work of late, the coach said, and assuming the doctor doesn’t report back with any bad news,
“He’s had absolutely no feeling of pain at all or any restrictions,” Mainieri said. “So that’s all a good sign. I’m hoping for an expecting a good report from the back specialist today, and if everything is on schedule, that’d mean another week or rest and then see when he’s ready to go.
“I would think it’ll be a couple weeks after that if everything is according to plan.”
The news isn’t as positive on freshman right-hander Nick Storz, who wasn’t able to make his debut this past weekend.
Storz saw a doctor Monday who found that there’s nothing structurally wrong, but diagnosed a mild rotator cuff strain. He won’t make his debut this week.
“That’s the biggest disappointment,” Mainieri said. “I really expected him to be able to answer the bell on Sunday and his arm just didn’t feel up to it. We’ve got to give him a little bit of rest this week.”
The plan now is for Storz to throw a bullpen session on Thursday in hopes of taking the mound in an actual game sometime next week.
– Mainieri said he’s confident in the lineup LSU used this weekend against right-handed pitching, a strong hint that Chris Reid and Austin Bain will remain the starting corner infielders at least until Smith returns to the lineup.
– The coach is still assessing some options against left-handed pitching, particularly as it relates to Daniel Cabrera in left field and Beau Jordan as the designated hitter. He did say that Bryce Jordan would be back in the lineup “in some capacity” against South Alabama.
LSU – Fr. RHP AJ Labas (0-0, 0.00 ERA, 5.0 IP, 1 BB, 3 SO)
USA – Jr. LHP Caleb Yarborough (1-0, 0.00 ERA, 7.1 IP, 4 BB, 4 SO)
Wednesday, March 14 – 6:30 p.m. CT
Alex Box Stadium, Skip Bertman Field in Baton Rouge, La. (10,326)
LSU – No. 16 by Collegiate Baseball; No. 17 by Baseball America
South Alabama – unranked
WTGE 100.7 FM in Baton Rouge
Live audio and live stats at www.LSUsports.net
SEC Network+ – the game may be viewed at WatchESPN.com and the Watch ESPN app
Wednesday’s game marks the 41st meeting between LSU and South Alabama in a series that began in 1971 and USA leads, 25-15. South Alabama posted a 7-6 win over the Tigers last season (May 9) in Alex Box Stadium, Skip Bertman Field. The teams also met on March 19, 2014, in Baton Rouge when LSU recorded a 9-0 win over the Jaguars. The 2014 contest was the first meeting between the schools since the 1997 NCAA South I Regional in Baton Rouge, when the Tigers defeated the Jaguars twice on the regional’s final day to advance to the College World Series. The schools met seven times in NCAA Regional games from 1989 through 1997, and LSU posted a 5-2 mark in those contests.