AJ Labas, LSU-Kentucky

LEXINGTON, Ky. — LSU’s bullpen allowed multiple leads to slip away this season, so when it looked like another one might disappear Saturday night, players stood motionless along the dugout railing, hoping for enough pitches to go their way.

When the last one finally did and freshman Garrett Edwards induced a ground ball that prevented Kentucky from completing a comeback, they burst over the barrier, jumping onto the field to celebrate inside Kentucky Proud Park.

Kentucky scored five runs over the final three innings and brought the go-ahead run to the plate more than a few times, but LSU won 8-6, taking a Southeastern Conference series for the first time this season.

“Finally,” fourth-year junior pitcher AJ Labas said, “everything’s starting to change for the better for us.”

One day after playing its most complete game against another SEC team this season, LSU (20-11, 3-8) quickly pulled ahead of Kentucky, continuing its sudden offensive turnaround.

Led by left fielder Gavin Dugas and designated hitter Cade Beloso, who combined for four hits and four RBIs, the Tigers carried a 7-1 lead into the seventh inning.

LSU hoped Labas could complete one more frame, allowing the Tigers to use freshman right-hander Ty Floyd in the final two innings. Labas allowed back-to-back hits.

“I didn’t think Kentucky would go away,” coach Paul Mainieri said, “and they didn’t.”

LSU adjusted its plan and brought in Floyd. Soon, Kentucky (19-9, 5-6) put runners on the corners with one out. Floyd issued two walks and allowed a two-run single as the lead slipped.

At that point, senior Devin Fontenot entered with two runners on base. He had thrown 13 pitches the night before. Fontenot induced a double play, ending the inning with LSU leading 7-5. As the Tigers yelled and he walked off the field, Fontenot stared at Kentucky’s dugout.

The Wildcats threatened to take the lead again in the eighth. Fontenot walked the leadoff batter, then a single squeaked through the infield. With one out and runners in scoring position, Fontenot hit junior Jacob Plastiak, who had a .154 batting average, on a full count. The players chirped at each other while Plastiak walked down the first base line.

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“It’s all part of the game,” Fontenot said. “Both teams are playing hard. Things get said.”

Before Fontenot faced junior Cam Hill, the ninth hitter in Kentucky’s lineup, Mainieri talked to Fontenot. He induced two ground balls after their conversation, and though another run scored, the inning ended with LSU's lead intact.

This time, Fontenot walked off the field much more subdued, lightly tapping the hands of his teammates once he reached the dugout.

“I didn’t have my best stuff tonight,” Fontenot said, “but I made pitches when I needed to and we got the win.”

As LSU clung to its 7-6 lead in the top of the ninth, Cade Doughty singled into center field. He advanced to second on a groundout.

LSU had lost five SEC games by three runs or less because it stranded runners in those situations, but freshman shortstop Jordan Thompson singled through a heavy shift with two outs. Doughty scored as the ball zipped into the outfield.

“They had the momentum,” Labas said, “and then whenever Jordan came up with that hit, you could tell it knocked the wind out of them.”

Edwards retired the side in the ninth inning, giving LSU the clean frame it needed to seal the win. As the last out nestled in first baseman Tre’ Morgan’s glove, Fontenot and freshman right-hander Blake Money, who will start Sunday, leaped from the dugout. They hugged Edwards near the mound.

At the end of a nearly four-hour game, the Tigers jumped in shallow center field and formed a handshake line across the mound for the second straight game. Some of them felt validated for remaining confident while LSU started 1-8 in the conference. They can sweep an SEC series for the first time this season on Sunday.

As he answered the final question of a virtual press conference, Fontenot smiled.

“Anything else?” he said. “I’m hungry.”

Email Wilson Alexander at walexander@theadvocate.com