LSU lets game slip away in the ninth inning in a 6-5 loss to Air Force

LSU freshman first baseman Tre' Morgan fields a high throw in the Tigers' 6-5 loss to Air Force Sunday afternoon in Alex Box Stadium.

One thing is obvious after LSU’s first two baseball games of the 2021 season.

If the Tigers don’t get lockdown pitching, they’re in trouble.

LSU’s relief pitching couldn’t close out what was three outs away from being a one-run victory as Air Force rallied for three runs in the top half of the ninth and held on for a 6-5 victory Sunday afternoon in Alex Box Stadium.

The last of Falcons’ runs in their final at-bat, plated on a sacrifice fly by second baseman Christian Gambale off LSU senior Aaron George for a two-run lead, provided needed insurance.

LSU freshman right fielder Dylan Crews hit a one-out solo homer in the ninth before Air Force reliever Paul Skenes retired Tigers’ second baseman Cade Doughty and first baseman Tre’ Morgan to close the game.

LSU coach Paul Mainieri, who used six pitchers including ace closer Devin Fontenot in Saturday’s 6-1 season-opening win over Air Force, employed six more in Sunday’s loss.

Tigers’ newbie pitchers’ freshman Garrett Edwards and sophomore junior college transfer Alex Brady and senior Aaron George combined Saturday in 2.2 innings to allow one run on two hits, striking out five. George threw just 10 pitches, all strikes.

On Sunday, freshman Ty Floyd and George were responsible for Air Force’s clutch ninth inning that was fueled by four walks (two each by Floyd and George).

After Floyd struck out the Falcons’ Skenes, he walked two straight batters and allowed an infield single to load the bases. George entered, walked the next two batters scoring the tying and go-ahead run, then gave up Gambale’s sacrifice fly.

Mainieri said he had no regrets about pitching Floyd and not going again to Fontenot.

“If you don’t pitch him (Floyd) when the game is not on the line, you’re not going to really grow,” Mainieri said. “I just couldn’t use Fontenot (who threw 23 pitches Saturday) again today. It’s too long of a season, it would have been too risky to bring him in.”

There were other problematic areas for the 1-1 Tigers, who host Louisiana Tech at 5 p.m. Monday.

LSU managed six hits off four Air Force pitchers in Sunday’s loss, but had just two in the final four innings against three Falcons’ relievers. In two games vs. Air Force, the Tigers hit .162 (6 for 37) with runners on base and .190 (4 for 21) with runners in scoring position.

“We’ve been putting good swings on balls, sometimes we’ve given them some easy outs,” LSU designated hitter Cade Beloso said. “We need to be a hard out every time, don’t give them lazy fly balls or strikeout looking. You always want to go down swinging.”

Also, LSU had four errors in the opening two games, all committed by makeshift starting third baseman Will Hellmers. Air Force scored three runs Sunday because three errors (two fielding, one throwing) by freshman Hellmers. He signed with LSU as a pitcher and Mainieri has tried in the last 10 days to convert him to a third baseman.

“Will Hellmers is a wonderful kid, a great competitor and he’ll do anything to help the team,” Mainieri said. “If anybody is to blame, it would be me for throwing the kid into a difficult situation with not that much experience.

“Boy, the ball just found him. He had so many tough chances and he made some of them. He made several good plays, but the ones that will stand out to you are the ones he didn’t make.

“I don’t know what we’re going to do with third base going forward.”

Or in center field where on Sunday starter Gio DiGiacomo pulled a hamstring making a diving first out catch in the Air Force sixth. Mainieri moved Drew Bianco, who started at shortstop, to DiGiacomo’s vacancy. But that is likely not a permanent solution.

LSU’s positives after its split with Air Force are sophomore shortstop Zach Arnold and freshmen Crews and Morgan.

After he hit a two-run homer Saturday, Arnold came off the bench Sunday in the eighth to stroke Air Force reliever Robert Martin’s first pitch into left field for a 2-RBI single for a 4-3 lead.

Crews is hitting .500 (4 of 8) with a run scored and an RBI off his Sunday solo homer and has drawn two walks. Morgan is batting .600 (3 of 5) with 3 RBIs, 2 runs scored, has drawn three walks and demonstrated flawless fielding.

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