AJ Labas Leads Trinity Christian To Victory At Tournament Of Champions Opener

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JACKSONVILLE, Fla.—Trinity Christian Academy opened the 2017 Tournament of Champions with a decisive 6-1 victory over Suwanee (Fla.) High. The Conquerors (6-1) rode the strong pitching performance of senior righthander AJ Labas, who allowed two hits and one walk over six scoreless innings.

Labas threw 42 of 68 pitches for strikes. He controlled the ball to his arm side but lacked pinpoint command. As the game progressed, he settled in and began to work to his glove side better.

“I didn’t feel my best today. I felt like it was my C-stuff compared to what I’ve been doing this season so far,” Labas said. “So I just went out there and tried to throw strikes and compete all game.”

Labas, a North Florida recruit, pitched at 87-90 mph with his fastball, peppering in 91s throughout his six innings. His fastball showed quality life, with arm-side run or sinking action. He mixed in a three-quarter breaking ball that showed flashes of depth early on. The pitch has projection, though it sometimes broke early or looped upward out of his hand. Labas, whose signature changeup missed bats on the showcase circuit last summer, didn’t throw the pitch often, but said he still feels comfortable using it in the right situation.

Labas’s arm action starts with a plunge toward his back hip. He found his three-quarter arm slot on Thursday. He kicks his front leg out and has a tendency to rush off his back ankle and land open. As a result he wasn’t always on top of his pitches, and he sometimes yanked his fastball.

Behind Labas, shortstop Austin Martin showed promising infield tools. The No. 35 preseason High School Prospect got off to a slow start in the first inning, dropping a pop-up at the second base bag and then allowing a throw from the catcher to sail into center field.

In the top of the third inning, Martin cleanly fielded a ground ball and his throw to first base showed late sink as it approached the bag. On a 4-6-3 double play in the fourth, Martin fired an online strike with carry to first. He made another solid throw again in the fifth. With one out in the seventh and runners on second and third, Martin charged a slow rolling ground ball and fired a strike to first base, despite throwing from a difficult angle.

Martin’s excellent infield actions and body control have excited scouts for some time. He’s battled arm injuries and scouts have questioned whether he has enough arm strength to stay at shortstop, but he said after the win that he feels healthy at this point.

“It’s better,” Martin said of his arm. “I did a lot of therapy, a lot (of) arm strengthening drills and a lot of bands at home, just to strengthen my shoulder back up. Right now I feel great.”

At the plate, Martin struck out swinging in his first plate appearance, chasing a tight breaking ball down and away. He worked walks in his second and fourth plate appearances, and lined out to the shortstop in his third.

Sam McMillan (Photo by Hudson Belinsky)

The Conquerors weren’t the only team with prospects in Thursday’s game. Suwanee’s battery included righthander Zane Stephens, a Mississippi State recruit, and Sam McMillan, a catcher committed to Florida. Stephens pitched at 86-88 and touched 89 early on, showing late life on his fastball. His curveball showed tight spin and late depth when used as a chase pitch. He was a bit erratic at times.

McMillan handled Stephens well, showing impressive instincts with his hands. McMillan set a low target and was flexible and loose behind the plate. He showed the ability to get under pitches low and to either side of the plate, as well as the abilty to glove breaking balls that nearly clipped the dirt. He has a compact arm action and threw accuractely to second base in warmups.

At the plate, McMillan went 1-for-3, staying inside a late-sinking fastball from Labas to hit a ground ball through the right side for a single in his first at-bat. In the righthanded hitter’s second plate appearance, he watched the count to 2-2, then recognized and laid off a breaking ball that started on the outer half before running out of the zone. On 3-2, he shot a line drive to the right fielder. In his third plate appearance, McMillan turned on one, smoking a line drive right at the third baseman.

McMillan’s stock has been on the rise since the Diamond Club showcase last fall, where his defense raised eyebrows. Labas said that McMillan caught him and handled him well at the Diamond Club.

Trinity Christian faces a challenging opponent Friday night in Calvary Christian (Fort Lauderdale, Fla.) and lefthander Jake Eder. Sophomore Dylan Simmons, a Florida State recruit, will take the mound for the Conquerors.

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