Upon his arrival for Saturday’s opening day, LSU starting pitcher Jaden Hill was motivated by the scene outside of Alex Box Stadium.
After 346 days in between games because the coronavirus pandemic shut down LSU’s 2020 season after 17 games, it was a sight for sore eyes.
“It was great when pulling up to the stadium, you see all the fans lining up,” Hill said. “Kids with jerseys on. Just that baseball atmosphere.”
Hill struck out five in four scoreless innings and five relievers followed LSU’s ace right-hander laying the groundwork in the Tigers’ 6-1 victory over Air Force before a reduced capacity crowd of 2,667 at Alex Box Stadium/Skip Bertman Field.
“It’s been a long, hard journey for a lot of people,” said LSU baseball coach Paul Mainieri, whose team hosts Air Force again Sunday at noon. “Just to be out there again was a moving experience for me and something I’ll always remember.”
Hill made his first start since his freshman season in 2019 and at his instance, logged an additional inning over his scheduled three-inning start. The projected major league first-round pick looked the part, yielding three hits – all singles – in a 62-pitch outing.
Hill topped out at 98 miles-per-hour. But in striking out three of the first four batters he faced, he got back-to-back called third strikes on curveballs to end the inning.
“I went to Coach (after the third inning) and said I wanted to go another inning, I have another one in me,” said Hill, who indicated he relied mainly on his fastball. “He looked at me and said, ‘You sure’? I said I was ready to go. I’m thankful he gave me another inning and had trust in me to go out there and compete.”
Hill, coupled with relievers Garrett Edwards, Matthew Beck, Alex Brady, Aaron George and Devin Fontenot, combined to allow five hits, one walk and struck out 14.
Air Force didn’t score until the eighth inning on a wild pitch by George.
LSU shortstop Zach Arnold’s first career homer, a two-run, two-out shot to left field in the bottom of the eighth, closed the door on the visitors.
“It was a curveball,” Arnold said of his homer. “All I was trying to do there was battle, get a hit for my team and I was lucky enough to get a good pitch and hit it well.”
The Tigers, led by freshman right fielder Dylan Crews’ 2-for-4 effort along with two RBIs apiece from Arnold and freshman first baseman Tre’ Morgan, had eight hits with Arnold supplying the only extra-base hit.
The Tigers opened the game with a run in the first inning, courtesy of Morgan’s bases-loaded walk to score Cade Doughty. Then, LSU scored five of its six runs after the fourth inning capped by Arnold’s homer off reliever Doyle Gehring, the final of Air Force’s five pitchers.
LSU stranded eight of 15 runners through the first four innings, leaving the bases full in both the first and fourth innings and unable to increase its 1-0 lead.
“It was a little disappointing because we had some opportunities there to kind of break the game open and we just didn’t have quality at bats,” Mainieri said. “If we want to be competitive and compete for a championship in this conference, we’re going to have to do better than that and the guys know that. Guys have to rise up.”
LSU steadily padded its lead, taking advantage of the 11 walks allowed by Air Force’s pitching, which also hit two batters.
With the infield drawn in following a passed ball that moved Gavin Dugas and Morgan into scoring position in the fifth, center fielder Giovanni DiGiacomo lined a single through the left side to score Dugas for a 2-0 advantage.
The Tigers maintained their offensive momentum the next two innings when Morgan made it 3-0 with a run-scoring liner into left-center in the sixth and Doughty added a sacrifice fly to left field, scoring Arnold in the seventh for a 4-0 cushion.
Morgan, whose defense in the preseason has drawn rave reviews from Mainieri, showed off his glove with a superb play in the seventh when he ranged into foul territory. He was able to track the ball, leaned over the padded railing of the LSU dugout and gloved the first out with a runner on first base.
The Tigers also benefited from a key double play turned by Doughty in the third inning after Hill yielded a single and hit a batter. Doughty fielded a ground ball on one knee, threw to Arnold covering second base who then fired over to Morgan. Hill followed with an inning-ending strike out.
“It was great to be back in The Box,” Hill said. “It’s a feeling like no other. We have the greatest fans in the country. Being able to play in front of those guys is special. It was great being back out there.”