AJ Labas

AJ Labas pitched eight innings in LSU's win over Gonzaga on Sunday to advance to a game with Oregon.

EUGENE, Ore. — Before AJ Labas led LSU into the final of the NCAA Eugene regional, the veteran struggled in his last four starts. The final month of the regular season, Labas allowed a combined 25 earned runs, an unusual stretch for someone who pitched so efficiently during his career.

At last, Labas regained his form with LSU facing elimination in a rematch Sunday afternoon against Gonzaga. As his teammates built an early lead, Labas delivered eight innings. The Tigers won 9-4 inside PK Park.

LSU (36-23) advanced to play top-seeded Oregon (39-14) in the regional final. LSU, the No. 3 seed, has to win Sunday night to force a winner-take-all game Monday for a spot in the super regional next weekend.

Labas hadn’t pitched well since throwing a complete game against Ole Miss in late April. He gave up nine runs, then five and then five again. His starts grew increasingly shorter, culminating in Labas getting pulled after he allowed six runs in 1⅓ innings during LSU’s final regular season series.

Labas hadn’t needed to pitch since then, but as LSU played its third game this weekend, it started the fourth-year right-hander. Labas surrendered four runs on six hits. He struck out eight. The length of his start conserved LSU’s bullpen for the next game.

For a moment, it appeared Labas would continue to struggle Sunday afternoon. His command slipped in the first inning. As he hit one batter and walked another, Gonzaga (34-19) scored two runs. But Labas limited the damage, and then LSU scored four runs in the bottom of the frame. It never relinquished the lead.

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Every player in the starting lineup recorded a hit except junior center fielder Giovanni DiGiacomo, who pulled his hamstring after grounding into a double play in the fourth inning. DiGiacomo watched the rest of the game from the dugout. He has dealt with a recurring hamstring issue this season.

The Tigers, who were shut out by Gonzaga’s ace two days earlier, opened the game with four straight hits off Alec Gomez. The junior-right hander never recorded an out in the second inning, pulled not long after LSU scored its fifth run.

LSU added two more runs in the third. Then sophomore designated hitter Zach Arnold homered in the sixth.

Though LSU’s offensive pace slowed, the early onslaught gave Labas a comfortable lead throughout his start. He at one point retired 10 straight batters.

When Gonzaga put runners on first and second with one out in the seventh inning, Labas induced two lazy fly balls to end the threat. An inning later, Labas struck out the last batter he faced. He threw 123 pitches, nearly matching the length of his complete game.

Once LSU recorded the final out, Labas conducted a television interview as LSU’s players shook one another’s hands and huddled in right field. Gonzaga’s players sat in the opposite dugout, their season over. Then the Tigers moved their equipment across the field, ate sandwiches and changed jerseys before pregame warmups. They had at least one more game to play.

Email Wilson Alexander at walexander@theadvocate.com