LSU center fielder Aliyah Andrews makes the incredible look easy – and fun
By Jordan Shusterman
FOX Sports MLB Writer
It has become hilariously routine. A ball is hit to the gap at Tiger Park, the home of LSU softball, or [insert SEC softball stadium of your choice]. Suddenly, a streak of yellow and purple darts across the field and …
"Air Aliyah" has done it again.
It’s Aliyah Andrews’ fifth year in Baton Rouge, as she's back with the Tigers after her real senior season was cut short in 2020.
With more than 250 career games in an LSU uniform, she’s no stranger to the spectacular in the outfield. But even she will acknowledge that her highlight reel has leveled up in 2021. She has always had a knack for tracking down fly balls, dating to her days of travel ball growing up in Florida.
"I don’t know the age [it started], but I’ve been able to make some diving catches for a good minute," Andrews told FOX Sports. "But they haven’t been as crazy as the ones I’ve made this year."
Indeed, though she produced her fair share of highlights in years past, even before she won the starting job in center field …
... this year’s catches, such as the one up top against Oklahoma State, have reached a new level of airborne achievement.
Has something changed, or is this simply a defensive hot streak of sorts?
"I think I’ve just gotten a lot better reads on balls this year, and I’ve trusted myself a lot more," Andrews said.
And on balls in the left-center-field gap, she has been aggressive. "This year, I’ve kind of just thought, ‘I’m the one that needs to catch this. I’m gonna catch it,'" she said. "And I can do that! So it’s worked out really well."
Of course, she couldn’t do it alone. Fortunately, she isn't the only strong defender in the LSU outfield. "I’m able to go straight to the ball, and Ciara [Briggs] or whoever’s in left can back me up," Andrews said. "I feel very comfortable diving that way because I know I always have backup."
As cliché as it sounds, Andrews insists that these catches wouldn’t be possible without similar efforts in practice. But can you really replicate plays such as these at full speed in a practice environment?
"I can understand why people would think you don’t have as much desire or reward in practice because you’re not around fans," Andrews said. "But to be able to do it in practice is how you get the reward in the game."
Plus, that’s just how things work in Baton Rouge. "Coach [Beth Torina] is not gonna put up with anything," Andrews said. "Freshman year, I thought, ‘It’s practice. I probably don’t need to dive for this. Whatever.’
"I thought very wrong. Anything that comes into the outfield, you have to have a no-fly-zone mentality. Even if it’s practice, you have to go full-out and catch the ball."
At some point during those practices before her freshman season in 2017, clearly, Andrews took that mentality to heart. She gave us this highlight before she even played her first collegiate game:
On top of being an absolute treat for LSU softball fans, who get to watch Andrews for an unexpected fifth year, this is the ninth season the Tigers faithful have been able to enjoy an All-American-level Andrews in the outfield.
That’s right: Aliyah’s older sister, A.J., enjoyed quite a career of her own at LSU from 2012 to '15 and has gone on to play professionally.
You might assume that all these viral grabs would give Aliyah some bragging rights, but consider the family standard: A.J. became the first woman to win a Rawlings Gold Glove Award for her play with the Akron Racers in the National Pro Fastpitch League.
At this point, A.J. is her sister's biggest fan.
She also loves great outfield defense, whether it's from her sibling or not.
For A.J., the model of defensive excellence she provided Aliyah began in travel ball around age 12. But the true origins of the Andrews diving catches might not be quite what you’d expect. "Diving was fun," A.J. told FOX Sports. "It was in Florida, so the grass is really dewy and wet in the morning. I made a catch, running, dove for it and slid across the grass."
The elder Andrews decided she would make as many diving catches as possible. "I think Aliyah coming up playing softball after me, it was the same for her," A.J. said. "It’s just fun. I think sometimes people think of it as hard, but for us, it’s just, 'I’m gonna go play Slip ‘N Slide today.'"
Because of their four-year age gap, the Andrews sisters have never shared a field. But if they did, both at the peak of their ball-hawking powers ... which one would play center field?
Asked separately, both sisters insisted it's too close to call. But perhaps one day, we will get our answer.
"I would hope we would be able to play pro together and be on the same team at some point," A.J. said. "That would be really, really cool."
For all her acrobatics, the most astonishing moment of Aliyah Andrews’ season thus far might actually have taken place in the batter’s box. Andrews uses a hitting technique known as slapping, which allows certain hitters to utilize their quickness with a running start in the box. This is highly effective for left-handed hitters atop many of the best lineups, but by nature, slapping is all about putting pressure on the defense and reaching base. It’s very rarely about producing extra-base power.
So when Andrews stepped into the box March 6 against Texas — with zero career home runs (save for one inside-the-parker a few days prior) in 230 career games — you can be sure she wasn’t thinking about putting the ball over the fence.
"It literally doesn’t even cross my brain," said Andrews, who is hitting a team-best .366 through the Tigers' 26-14 start to the season. "I’ve been so content with being the person to just get on base and let everybody else in the lineup hit a home run."
And then ...
"When it happened, I was like, ‘Oh, wow, I did it!’" Andrews recalled.
Everyone from the announcers to her teammates was as shocked and elated as she was.
Once again, practice made a big difference. "In the fall, when I would hit with a manager throwing to me on the field, I hit a couple over," she said. "I had been working on my power, and my manager was screaming, ‘You’re gonna hit a home run this year!’ I can say it’s something I didn’t put past myself this year, especially since I worked on my power so much."
A.J. was lucky enough to be in the crowd that night, supporting her sister as the superfan she is. "I don’t get super nervous watching her play, but I want her so bad to do well," A.J. said. "As she hit the ball, I was like, ‘Oh my God, go ... go … go ...' and then it went over and hit the scoreboard, and I was beside myself. I just jumped up, and I couldn’t even tell you what I was thinking. I was so excited."
As fun as the long-awaited home run was, it seems like a safe bet that Andrews’ next highlight will come in the outfield. Some advice for any hitter facing the Tigers the rest of the season: Maybe don’t hit it anywhere near center field.
On second thought, please do. We're happy to watch Air Aliyah take flight again and again and again.
Jordan Shusterman is half of @CespedesBBQ and a baseball analyst for FOX Sports. He lives in Maryland but is a huge Seattle Mariners fan and loves watching the KBO, which means he doesn't get a lot of sleep. You can follow him on Twitter at @j_shusterman_.