Entering the 2010 season, Paul Mainieri thought he had a team capable of returning to the College World Series, but inconsistencies at third base nagged LSU. Mainieri tried about six players at the position, trying to find a reliable starter. The spot hindered LSU throughout the season, and it failed to host a postseason game.
“It literally kept us from having a real good team that year,” Mainieri said last week.
Mainieri referenced the 2010 season as he discussed his concerns about third base before LSU’s opening game. He said the Tigers had struggled to make routine plays at third base since the start of fall practice. He worried about how the position could harm LSU this season, like it did a decade ago.
If LSU couldn’t play reliable defense at third base — and shortstop, as Mainieri’s concerns included both positions — then LSU would have to throw extra pitches, shift its infielders and worry about steals. Most importantly, opposing teams would score more runs.
“If you don’t make the plays,” Mainieri said, “your pitching becomes mediocre.”
A blown save, three defensive errors and inconsistent offensive production made LSU lose 6-5 to Air Force on Sunday afternoon.
Mainieri’s concerns were confirmed within two games. Freshman Will Hellmers, a potential two-way player who spent much of preseason practice as a pitcher, made four errors. Three came in a 6-5 loss Sunday afternoon to Air Force, which scored two unearned runs as a result of the mistakes.
Freshman Jordan Thompson replaced Hellmers after his third error. Thompson started Monday night against Louisiana Tech.
“Obviously the concerns I had going into the season reared their heads already,” Mainieri said Sunday night. “Our left side of the infield is a little bit of a struggle.”
For most of fall and preseason practice, LSU looked at Thompson and freshman Will Safford at third base. It also tried right fielder Dylan Crews there one day and sophomore infielder Collier Cranford, the starting shortstop last season, received reps.
As preseason practice continued and his concerns remained, Mainieri held onto the idea of moving Hellmers to third base. He saw Hellmers field at first base one day, liked his glove work and asked him where he played in high school when he didn’t pitch. Hellmers said third base.
Who’s starting, how to watch, what to watch for when LSU and Louisiana Tech play Monday night.
After Hellmers recovered from coronavirus, he began taking reps at third base about a week before the season opener. He started because Mainieri hadn’t found another player he trusted to make routine plays. Mainieri said Thompson, whom Perfect Game ranked the No. 53 player in the country in high school, had trouble making consistent, accurate throws.
“I know how important third base is,” Mainieri said. “For me, it’s the most underrated position on the field.”
Hellmers made one error in the season opener. In the fourth inning Sunday, a throwing error and a fielding error created two unearned runs, letting Air Force tie the game. Two innings later, another run scored when a sharp ground ball zipped underneath Hellmers’ glove. Air Force took a 3-2 lead.
“If anybody is to blame, it would be me for throwing the kid into a difficult situation without that much experience,” Mainieri said. “He had so many tough chances, and he made some of them. He made several good plays. It’s just the ones that stand out to you are the ones he didn’t make. Nobody feels worse than him. I love the kid. I think he’s a winner. He’s a competitor. He’ll be fine after this.”
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.
Thompson soon entered the game. He corralled a ground ball speeding down the third base line, spun and threw out a runner at first in his only defensive attempt. He received his first start Monday.
After Sunday’s game, Mainieri didn’t know if Hellmers would stay at third base or focus again on pitching, where he was one of LSU’s top 10 pitchers during fall practice.
Either way, the Tigers will keep looking for a reliable third baseman, hoping 2010 doesn’t repeat itself.
“Obviously third base is a question,” Mainieri said Sunday night. “We’re going to have to find a solution there.”