The way No. 1 Arkansas abused LSU pitching in a 17-10 demolition of the Tigers in the first game of Saturday’s Alex Box Stadium doubleheader that clinched the series for the Razorbacks, all bets were off that LSU could muster any feel-good moments in the series finale.
But the Tigers did, coming from a most unlikely source.
Senior pitcher Ma’Khail Hillard, who has spent the last three seasons overcoming arm and confidence problems, won his first SEC game since May 2018 by delivering five solid innings as a starter in a 5-4 LSU game three victory.
The Tigers led 5-1 in the fifth when Hilliard made his exit. Freshman reliever Garrett Edwards followed with three shutout innings, but senior closer Devin Fontenot came with one batter of totally imploding in the ninth when he allowed three runs on three hits.
When Arkansas (34-8 overall, 15-6) left fielder Greg Gregory, representing the go-ahead run, struck out looking to end the game, both Hilliard and LSU coach Paul Mainieri exhaled.
“It was amazing, man,” said Hilliard, who gave up two hits and a run. “It felt really good to help my team out. My teammates, family and friends were really rooting for me.”
So was Mainieri, who has been grasping for straws trying to find an SEC game three starter since he had to re-shuffle the SEC weekend series pitching order after game one starter Jaden Hill sustained a season-ending elbow injury against Vanderbilt on April 1.
Since then, LSU’s trio of game three starters in losses to Kentucky, South Carolina and Ole Miss had an earned run average of 12.38.
And the way the Razorbacks lit up LSU starter AJ Labas for five runs on five hits in the first inning of Saturday’s opener, Mainieri wondered if he had any pitcher that could chill the heavy-hitting Hogs long enough for LSU to start the nightcap hitting the same way it did in the last four innings of game one when it scored eight runs .
Hilliard got the starting call on the basis of his three-inning, 29-pitch start in Tuesday’s 7-0 non-conference shutout. He allowed one hit and struck out five of the nine batters he faced.
“He threw the ball so well this week in the game against Grambling and did it pretty efficiently,” Mainieri said of Hilliard. “So, I’ve been toying with the idea all week about starting him in the third game.
“I thought he threw the ball great. He seemed to find his confidence again. He’s found his curveball, his command was really good. He pitched really well against a tough, tough lineup. I couldn’t be happier for the kid.”
As a freshman in 2018, Hilliard, a Central High product, was arguably LSU’s best pitcher with a 9-5 record and a 3.79 ERA in 70 innings. His last win of that season was a 6-2 win at Auburn on May 18 when he outdueled Casey Mize, the No. 1 selection in the 2018 MLB draft.
After suffering a loss in the SEC tournament, Hilliard was scratched from the NCAA tournament with arm soreness.
Since then, he never again has been consistently effective until he picked up two wins in the last five days.
“I changed my mindset,” Hilliard said. “I went out in the mid-week game and just locked in, making sure I had everything I needed, especially in my secondary pitches. My curveball, my changeup and being able to throw that in different counts.”
It certainly helped that Hilliard had immediate run support when Tigers third baseman Cade Doughty whacked a three-run homer in the first.
LSU added a run in the second on right fielder Dylan Crews RBI single and a run in the third on a center fielder Drew Bianco RBI groundout.
“You’ve got to give Hilliard credit,” Arkansas coach Dave Van Horn said. “He came out and threw his breaking ball for a strike. Threw his fastball for a strike. We hit a couple balls hard, but really, he just got us out. He had a nice lead to work with, too, and I think he got comfortable out there.”
The third game win was huge for LSU (26-17, 7-14) considering the swift and demoralizing outcome of Saturday’s opener.
Arkansas ripped Tigers starter Labas, beginning with two straight singles. The main damage in the first inning was done by center fielder Christian Franklin’s two-run single, second baseman Robert Moore’s two-RBI triple and catcher Dylan Smith’s RBI double.
“Every time Labas made a mistake, we hit it,” Van Horn said.
The first four batters Labas faced in the Arkansas fifth produced three runs on four hits before Mainieri finally yanked him.
Mainieri inserted freshman Blake Money, who immediately gave up a two-run homer to Moore and a RBI single to Smith to complete Arkansas’ seven-run inning.
The way Razorbacks slapped around LSU in scoring its most runs ever against the Tigers, Mainieri was desperate for a game three win to give his team hope it could rally in its last three league series of the season.
“It (the win) was critical,” Mainieri said. “Like I told the team after the game, we’ve played seven series and six have been against top 10 teams. We need to win some series. We’ve got three left (at Auburn, home vs. Alabama, at Texas A&M). They’re all going to be tough series.”