Blown save and defensive mistakes sink LSU in loss to Air Force

LSU made several defensive errors, struggled offensively and yet, it entered the ninth inning Sunday afternoon leading Air Force. With a chance to escape all those mistakes, coach Paul Mainieri asked freshman Ty Floyd to make his first career appearance.

Floyd entered with a one-run lead after shortstop Zach Arnold smashed a go-ahead single in the eighth. Floyd struck out the first batter he faced, but he walked the next two and another reached on an infield single, loading the bases.

Mainieri inserted senior Aaron George, who made a brief appearance the day before. He walked the next batter. Air Force tied the game. He walked another batter. Air Force took the lead. The Falcons added their final run with a sacrifice fly before George induced the third out.

All three runs were charged to Floyd, and though freshman right fielder Dylan Crews hit a solo home run in the bottom of the ninth inning, No. 7 LSU lost 6-5 inside Alex Box Stadium. Air Force (1-1) scored two unearned runs.

After the game, Mainieri told LSU’s players not to point fingers at anyone. Multiple factors contributed to the loss — the blown save, three defensive errors and inconsistent offensive production — making the outcome something the entire team needed to learn from, not any one player.

“There’s a lot of areas we need to improve in,” Mainieri said, “and we’re going to address them and get better. It’s only the second game of the year.”

Long before the blown save or Arnold’s near heroics, the game confirmed some of Mainieri’s preseason concerns, especially about LSU’s defense at third base. Mainieri considers third base the most underrated defensive position, and he started freshman Will Hellmers there because he hadn’t found another player he trusted to make routine plays.

With LSU (1-1) leading 2-0 in the fourth inning, Air Force capitalized on two errors by Hellmers to tie the game. Two innings later, Air Force center fielder Blake Covin hit a leadoff single and stole second with one out. Covin scored when a sharp ground ball zipped underneath Hellmers’ glove, his third error of the game and fourth of the opening weekend. Air Force took a 3-2 lead.

Hellmers, a two-way player, played third base when he didn’t pitch in high school, but he lost most of his senior year because of the coronavirus pandemic and he primarily pitched at LSU until Mainieri moved him to third base last week. After Hellmers’ third error, freshman Jordan Thompson replaced him.

“Will Hellmers is a wonderful kid, great competitor,” Mainieri said. “He would do anything for the team. If anybody is to blame, it would be me for throwing the kid into a difficult situation without that much experience.”

Playing for the first time in 346 days, LSU beat Air Force 6-1 in its season opener. The game ended the longest stretch between games since 1943-44.

Despite the defensive mistakes, LSU kept the score close until the eighth inning. Then, with Morgan and designated hitter Cade Beloso in scoring position, Arnold hit a line drive into left field. Morgan scored. As the left fielder struggled to grab the ball, Beloso sprinted around third. He slid across home plate and tore off his helmet, screaming as LSU reclaimed the lead. The excitement didn’t last.

“Sometimes the game just happens to fall that way,” Beloso said.

While Floyd warmed up, senior closer Devin Fontenot sat in the bullpen with the rest of LSU’s pitchers. Mainieri didn’t use him because Fontenot threw 23 pitches the day before.

Asked why Fontenot had appeared in a non-save situation Saturday, Mainieri pointed out LSU led 4-1, then Arnold hit a two-run homer a minute or two before Fontenot entered the game.

“It’s just too early in the year to bring him back on back-to-back days,” Mainieri said. “If this was an SEC series a month from now, then he would’ve been in the game in the ninth inning. But this is how the young kids cut their teeth. You have to bring them in. If you just pitch them when the game’s not on the line, they’re not really growing.”

As the ninth inning unfolded, junior Landon Marceaux watched from the dugout. He had thrown five innings, cruising through Air Force’s lineup. He sympathized with Floyd. Marceaux struggled as a freshman, too. He saw himself in his teammate and vowed to help him improve.

“Ty unfortunately couldn’t find his release point and struggled to throw strikes,” Marceaux said. “That’s part of this game. I was in that same situation when I was a freshman.”

After the game, Mainieri rubbed his chin as he thought about what he learned the last two days. His preseason concerns about the left side of the infield were verified, leaving LSU to continue its search for an everyday third baseman, and he wanted LSU to hit better against high velocity. The loss made those realizations sting more.

“This is what happens in the early games of the season,” Mainieri said. “You end up losing some games. You have to find out stuff about your team.”

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