LSU bats stay hot, Hilliard pitches another gem, as the Tigers win their fourth SEC road series of the year at Texas A&M

PHOTO by Gus Stark

A one-run loss in the opening game of the series.

Trailing 6-2 after the first two horrific innings of game two.

Players galore bruised and battered giving supreme physical effort knowing their season was on the line.

And then it happened.

Just two runs allowed by seven pitchers in the last 20.2 innings of the series.

An explosion of 12 runs scored on 13 hits in five innings stretching from the end of an incredible second game comeback victory into the sizzling start of a game three win.

And just like that, LSU, dazed and confused and on life support early Friday night, strolled out of Texas A&M’s Blue Bell Park Saturday afternoon with a wire-to-wire 8-2 win to capture the Tigers’ fifth (fourth on the road) SEC series as the regular season concluded.

“We lose a heartbreaker (2-1) on opening night and you’re down 6-2 in the second game, you fight back and tie the game (won by LSU 12-6 in 13 innings),” said Tigers’ coach Paul Mainieri, whose team heads into next week’s SEC tournament (vs. Georgia on Tuesday) 34-21 overall and 13-17 SEC. “You’ve got guys banged up, (center fielder Drew) Bianco is crashing into walls, guys are giving effort everywhere.

“They compete as hard as they can. Sometimes, we’re a little bit short in areas, but it’s never because they don’t care or they aren’t passionate about representing LSU in the right way.”

After Friday night’s late, late show when the Tigers overcame a four-run deficit with 10 unanswered runs (including a six-run 13th inning rally) and with 11.2 innings of scoreless pitching by five relievers, LSU needed two things to happen Saturday vs. A&M (29-26, 9-20 SEC).

It had to hit the ball early and often and starting pitcher Ma’Khail Hilliard had to survive as long as possible since Mainieri didn’t have many pitching options after using a bullpen full of hurlers to seal Friday’s win.

The Tigers came up big in both areas in the finale.

They scored seven runs in the first four innings boosted by a four-run third inning that featured three home runs with solo shots by left fielder Gavin Dugas and Bianco sandwiching a two-run blast by designated hitter Zach Arnold.

“Hitting is very contagious,” LSU first baseman Tre’ Morgan said. “When one guy gets it gone, then the whole team hops on board. That (third) inning, especially, really showed it.”

Hilliard, a senior who struggled the last two years with injuries yet asked Mainieri four weeks ago to give him a shot as a weekend series game 3 starter, continued his better late-than-never career comeback.

He held A&M to two runs on six hits in a much-needed 80-pitch outing that spanned seven innings, two more than Mainieri counted on.

Hilliard’s two strikeouts came in the first inning. After that, he did what he usually does, which is get batters out with nine outs via ground balls including a double play grounder and nine out on fly balls.

“Baseball is a very mental game,” said Hilliard, now 3-0 in his SEC starts in the last four weekends. “You get yourself in a good mental mindset before going on the mound and focusing on exactly what you want to do. You have a lot of success (doing that), filling up the strike zone, knowing their hitters and trusting your defense.”

Mainieri said after Saturday’s win he has no idea yet which Tigers’ pitcher will start in Tuesday’s SEC tournament opener. For the time being, he’s just happy to play on and hopefully past next week.

“We’ve won 34 games,” Mainieri said. “That’s not awful but it’s obviously not a great season. We play for championships at LSU.

“But considering we lost one of our top starting pitchers (Jaden Hill with a torn UCL vs. Vandy on April 5) and we lost one of top relief pitchers (Matthew Beck) early in the season, we’ve overcome some things.

“Here we are at the end of the regular season and I think we’ve got a realistic shot at an NCAA bid. We’re going to go to Hoover, let it rip on Tuesday and see what happens.”

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