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Teammates celebrate after LSU's Alex Milazzo (20) scores a run for his team against UNO during a baseball game at Maestri Field in New Orleans, Wednesday, March 10, 2021. (Photo by Sophia Germer, NOLA.com, The Times-Picayune | The New Orleans Advocate)

Standing in the visitor’s dugout Friday night at Tennessee, coach Paul Mainieri began to consider how he might structure the lineup the next day, providing a peak into the daily dilemma he faces as LSU tries to find the correct balance of offensive production and defensive reliability.

Mainieri had seen LSU lose its third Southeastern Conference game. The Tigers struck out 12 times. They made several defensive mistakes. The same problems that affected LSU the weekend before combined to create a 3-1 loss in the first game of the series.

Mainieri brought up center field. He explained how, at the beginning of the season, LSU thought junior Giovanni DiGiacomo would handle the position, but he had missed all but five games with a hamstring strain.

So Mainieri debated between sophomore Mitchell Sanford, a solid hitter with limited defensive range, and junior Drew Bianco, the second-best fielder with a high strikeout rate. On Friday night, he picked Sanford.

“We thought Sanford would give us more offense than Bianco, but we sacrificed some range out there,” Mainieri said. “Tonight, we didn't get offense, and we sacrificed the range. That's something we'll go back and evaluate.

“Tomorrow, if I play Bianco, we'll have better range, but I don't know offensively — you'd like to think maybe Drew will get into one tomorrow, but you look at the numbers, he hasn't hit consistently. Mitchell has been better, but Mitchell didn't have a good night tonight.”

Mainieri started Bianco in center field Saturday evening. He also played sophomore Zach Arnold at second base and sophomore Alex Milazzo at catcher. The night before, he used different starters at all three positions.

There are some players on LSU’s roster who Mainieri can automatically insert into the lineup no matter the opponent. They hit, run and play reliable defense, such as junior left fielder Gavin Dugas, freshman right fielder Dylan Crews and freshman first baseman Tre’ Morgan.

At other positions, particularly second base, catcher and center field, Mainieri faces a daily dilemma: offense or defense?

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“The five-tool players don't come along very often in college,” Mainieri said. “Those guys sign professionally most of the time.” 

More likely, players arrive with strengths in a specific area, and Mainieri must determine how to use them. This year, that has been difficult. 

LSU has players at those three positions whose strengths fall on opposite ends of a spectrum. At second base for example, sophomore Collier Cranford has proved himself as an elite defender, but he’s batting .188 without an extra-base hit. Arnold carries a .299 average with four home runs, but he has registered five errors, the most amongst regular position players.

"You wish you didn't have one extreme or the other," Mainieri said. "You wish the player brought the skill set that gave you everything. Unfortunately, that's not always the case. You try to get something a little bit closer to the middle, so we're constantly working with Arnold on improving the defense and Cranford on improving his offense.” 

LSU faces the same situation at catcher. Since he arrived on campus, Milazzo has developed a reputation as an elite defensive player whose arm helps prevent teams from stealing. He’s batting .150 with 12 strikeouts.

On the other hand, Travinski provides raw power potential. Teammates have seen him deposit balls on the camera tower next to the batter's eye inside Alex Box Stadium. He has two home runs. But Travinski recently began catching again after he healed from an elbow injury.

“Do you want to go with the defensive guy that can stop the running game that's a little bit thin with the bat?” Mainieri said. “Or do you want to go with the guy that can be a game-changer offensively, but the other team perhaps can take advantage of him having a little bit of a sore arm right now?”

Mainieri chose Travinski, Cranford and Sanford in the series opener. Travinski struggled defensively, allowing two passed balls, and struck out three times. Cranford went 1 for 2 with a walk and turned a double play. Sanford didn’t record a hit and missed a ball on a diving attempt, which resulted in a game-tying triple.

"We're going to have to look at it again," Mainieri said in the dugout, "and come up with some answers."

The next day, Mainieri picked the other options at all three positions. Until someone asserts themselves, he’ll evaluate the spots on a daily basis, hoping LSU can shore its defense and improve its offense at the same time.

Email Wilson Alexander at walexander@theadvocate.com