A.J. Andrews, Jacee Blades form 1-2 punch at top of LSU softball lineup

Like singles hitters in baseball, softball slappers often don’t get the recognition they deserve for the things they do.

Their work sometimes goes unnoticed, mainly because they don’t hit many monster home runs. But they’re certainly never unappreciated by their coaches or teammates.

Which is definitely the case for the 13th-ranked LSU softball team when it comes to Florida native A.J. Andrews and Parkview Baptist graduate Jacee Blades, two slappers who form a potent tandem at the top of the lineup.

Swinging their hot bats and getting on base for LSU’s big hitters, Andrews and Blades were clearly the difference in a three-game Southeastern Conference sweep of Kentucky last weekend.

Andrews and Blades delivered big ninth-inning hits Saturday in a 4-3 win before Andrews’ two-run single capped a three-run rally for a 3-2 Sunday victory.

While they had some big RBIs against Kentucky, it’s their skills as table-setters that have LSU (25-5, 5-1 SEC) on a seven-game winning streak going into Friday’s 6 p.m. game with South Carolina (17-9, 0-3 SEC) at Tiger Park.

The teams will play again at 3 p.m. Saturday and finish off the three-game series at 1 p.m. Sunday.

With LSU getting at least four home runs from four players — Bianka Bell, Allison Falcon, Tammy Wray and Kellsi Kloss — the Tigers are counting on Andrews and Blades to do what they do best.

“They’re definitely the table-setters for us,” LSU coach Beth Torina said. “The big hitters are the ones that get all the glory and the glamour, but (Andrews and Blades) are the ones that score the multiple runs.”

They played a different role against Kentucky, however.

In the middle game of the three-game set, Andrews’ squeeze bunt in the bottom of the ninth tied the score after Kentucky took a one-run lead and Blades followed with a game-ending infield single.

The next day, LSU won after erasing a 2-0 deficit in the bottom of the sixth inning with Andrews’ two-RBI single, giving the Tigers the lead.

“They put a lot of pressure on the defense and do so many things,” Torina said. “They’re capable of hitting the long ball at times, too, so they make a lot of things happen. They’re really exciting to see.”

Andrews, the Louisiana Sports Writers Association’s Hitter of the Week, is batting .356 with a .422 on-base percentage, while Blades leads the team at .363 and has a .418 OBP. They’ve also combined for 37 runs scored (Andrews leads the team with 23).

Both embrace their roles as slappers, even though they’re usually overshadowed by the power hitters that often drive them in.

“That doesn’t bother me at all,” said Andrews, who was chosen to the All-SEC Freshman Team last season. “Everybody loves the big bombs and big home runs, but sometimes you have to do it with small-ball.

“Whether it’s a bunt or an infield single, the thing we have to do is keep moving runners around. “We get a chance to have a really big impact on the team by giving the middle of the order a chance to get the job done.”

Bell, Falcon, Wray and Sandra Simmons have done that, combining for 16 home runs and 70 RBIs.

While Andrews is a two-year starter in center field, Blades is settling in as the starting left fielder and as the No. 2 hitter behind Andrews.

“I love hitting behind A.J.,” Blades said. “She’s great because she sets the stage for us in a lot of games. She gets me pumped up when she gets a hit because it’s my job to move her on or to get on base as well.

“It’s like the people behind us. They need us to get on so we can score.”

LSU first-year volunteer coach Sharonda McDonald certainly knows how important they are to the lineup.

McDonald, a National Pro Fastpitch (NPF) all-star, played the role of slapper from 2004-07 at Texas A&M and was a four-time All-Big 12 pick for the Aggies.

“We’ve spent a lot of time together, and they’ve done a great job,” said McDonald, who works with the short game. “When I got here, they were already good at slapping. I just gave them some tips here and there to help them get better at their game.

“They really took it and ran with it.”