Most days it’s impossible to tell how Ma’Khail Hilliard’s outing is going based on body language alone. The lanky freshman projects the unflappable cool of a man who has ice water flowing through his veins regardless of the situation.
The heat of being locked in another pitching duel with a critical series on the line couldn’t shake the stoic rookie, but once the work was done, a fiery competitor peeked out from behind the 24/7 poker face.
With LSU leading 1-0 in the sixth inning, Hilliard froze Bulldog outfielder Elijah MacNamee on three consecutive curveballs to strand the bases loaded and let out a little fist pump on his way back to the dugout.
“That was a tough one,” Hilliard said with a wry smile. “I felt like I was getting the calls (from home plate umpire David Savage). I was getting pretty mad and frustrated, but once I regained my composure and got that last out, I felt amazing.”
Hilliard fired six brilliant innings of three-hit ball with a career-high nine strikeouts and LSU got late home runs from Daniel Cabrera and Zach Watson to finish off Mississippi State 4-0 on Saturday afternoon to clinch a much-needed series win at Alex box Stadium.
These outings have almost become routine for Hilliard since joining the weekend rotation a month ago. All four of his career starts have come in rubber matches, and aside from a 1-0 loss at Vanderbilt, LSU (18-11, 5-4 SEC) is unbeaten in those contests.
How good has Hilliard been with a chance to win a series? He’s now 3-1 in those four starts having allowed three earned runs in 23.1 innings (1.16 ERA) and struck out 26.
“Ma’Khail was brilliant again, sometimes pitching out of jams that weren’t his own doing,” LSU coach Paul Mainieri said. “It’s what winners do. What non-winners do is somebody makes an error, they give up some hits and then blame their teammates for it. Ma’Khail has an ability to raise his game, much like a guy like Aaron Nola used to do.”
The afternoon began with Hilliard picking up his defense after a mess that wasn’t of his own making. Austin Bain dropped a throw at second base that could’ve started a 5-4-3 double play. Instead State had two men aboard with nobody out in the first inning.
Of course Hilliard, as he’s done so often this season, calmly rose to the occasion. He fanned two Bulldogs with his signature hook sandwiched around a soft ground ball to escape unscathed. Bain greeted him with a bear hug on the way back to the dugout.
“He was thanking me for picking him up,” Hilliard said. “That’s just the duty of a pitcher. I told him to shake it off and keep it rolling.”
The senior made sure to pay his gratitude forward in short order. Nick Webre led off the second inning with a walk and Bain chased him home with a ringing double to the right-center field gap on a beautifully-executed hit-and-run.
That inning, along with several others, was short-circuited by bunt attempts gone array, but the brilliance of Hilliard made the run stand up into the later stages of the game. Mississippi State hardly threatened between the first and sixth innings.
It’s hard to believe that Mainieri woke up Saturday morning not knowing if Hilliard would even be able to start the game. Wait, what?
The coach revealed that his stud freshman had been dealing with an eye infection that day before that prevented him from putting his contacts in. He’d worn glasses in the dugout during Friday’s game while LSU trainer Cory Couture hit a local pharmacy looking for antibiotics to help alleviate the infection on his eyeball so he could put his contacts in.
“We didn’t know until an hour before the game if he was going to be able to get his contacts in,” Mainieri said. “But when he got here I could tell that it was looking better. He was feeling better. So we felt fairly confident he could get his contacts in, but even if he couldn’t he was going to borrow Cam Sanders’ glasses to pitch. It seems kind of insignificant, but your vision is everything.”
Devin Fontenot worked a scoreless seventh inning and LSU got two big insurance runs on one swing. A walk to Bain ended the afternoon of Mississippi State starter Jacob Billingsley, and Cabrera jumped on the second offering from lefty reliever Zach Neff for a two-run home run to right.
Nick Bush worked around an infield single in the eighth and LSU promptly hung another insurance run on the board. Watson led off the inning with a long solo home run to left off reliever JP France, his fourth of the season. Bush picked up the save after returning to work the ninth inning.
“We had three big swings,” Mainieri said. “We did just enough, but we’ll take the win and we’ll take the series win.”
LSU will enjoy a Sunday off for Easter before getting ready to host Nicholls State on Tuesday night. First pitch is set for 6:30 p.m.