After each of LSU senior pitcher Ma’Khail Hilliard’s 60 career appearances – from his two scoreless innings in his February 2018 debut to his one-run five-inning outing in last month’s Super Regional at Tennessee – Keith Hilliard always told his son how proud he was of him.
“It really hit my heart after my last outing in Tennessee.,” Ma’Khail said Thursday during a Tigers’ baseball Zoom media video conference. “He texted a short paragraph telling me how proud he was of me, especially over the past four years. He still believed I wasn’t done yet.”
Eight days later after sending his son the heartfelt text, Keith Hilliard drowned in a tubing accident in Livingston Parish. He was 53 years old.
“He really wanted me to stay (and play) at LSU another year (rather than pursue a pro career) and try to get my masters,” Ma’Khail said.
Seventeen days after his dad was laid to rest, Ma’Khail and his road game roomie and fellow senior pitcher Devin Fontenot announced they were returning in 2022 for a second senior season afforded to college athletes by the NCAA because of COVID-19.
Which made new LSU head baseball coach Jay Johnson very happy, especially after starting left fielder Gavin Dugas said he’s also returning.
“It’s huge,” Johnson said. “If you look at the College World Series teams this year, one theme is they were all old and experienced. I can’t overstate or understate how important that is.
“We want to be able to pitch and pitch at a high-level. When you look at Devin and Ma’Khail, they pitched in high leverage situations, particularly at the end of the year.”
When it came to the possibility of being selected in the MLB’s 10-round draft that took place last Sunday and Monday, Fontenot had a consistent sample size (90 career appearances, 13-7 with a 4.00 ERA and 16 saves in 135 innings).
Ma’Khail, a Baton Rouge native who helped lead Central High to the 2017 Class 5A state championship, struggled with arm problems for the last two years after a spectacular freshman season in 2018.
He’s 16-9 in 60 career appearances and 175.1 innings pitched. But most notably, he regained his form in the last half of this past season when he was 6-0 with 44.1 innings pitched.
Finding his mojo again playing pain-free caused him to lean towards turning pro if the right opportunity and money presented itself.
“I really wanted to go see where my arm would take me in the draft, whether it was the 10th round and $200,000 to $250,000,” Ma’Khail said. “I wasn’t offered that type of money and I wasn’t backing down from where I stood.”
When Ma’Khail’s father died, Fontenot reached out to Ma’Khail via a phone call.
“Dude, you definitely have to come back,” Fontenot told him. “Everybody is going to be there for you. I’m going to be there for you. You’ve got to come back.”
Ma’Khail had already been emotionally trending toward returning.
“My mindset completely changed after what happened with my father,” he said.
Keith Hilliard was his son’s biggest fan along with his wife Lisa. It was Keith who nicknamed Ma’Khail “Mooch” after former Auburn and NBA guard Moochie Norris.
One of Keith’s favorite stories is when he discovered young Ma’Khail was adept at baseball.
It happened when Ma’Khail was at Baton Rouge’s Independence Park half-watching one of his brothers play a T-ball game. A bystander saw Ma’Khail flipping his plastic ball in the air and hitting it, so he decided to give him a hand.
“Hey, little man, let me throw you the ball,” said the helpful stranger, grabbing the ball and taking a pitching spot just 10 feet from Ma’Khail.
Keith didn’t have time to warn the do-gooder he needed to back away even further.
“Mooch smacked the guy right in the face with a line drive,” Keith recalled. “All I could do was apologize.”
Keith always admired his son’s toughness, especially after coaching a 9-year old Ma’Khail in pee-wee football.
“Mooch never had a lot of size and has always been thin,” Keith said a few years ago. “But he’s always had heart. All he wanted to do was run to the 11- and 12-year-old field and tackle the bigger kids. I’d have to pull him off that field.”
Keith always said his pitching advice to Ma’Khail never changed.
“Keep your team in the game, son,” Keith repeatedly said. “When you leave the field and you’ve held the score down, you’ve done your job.'”
Their close relationship is why Ma’Khail is still in the early stages of grieving the unexpected loss of someone who has been there every step of his athletic career.
“Once we started funeral preparations, it really hit me like I’m not going to be able to talk with my dad anymore,” “Ma’Khail said. “I just keep remembering how great a man he was and how influential he was for me my whole life. I just feel blessed I was able to spend 22 years with him and grow in his household.”
At his dad’s funeral and wake, extended family members who hadn’t seen Ma’Khail in a while didn’t hesitate to tell him he has a lot of Keith’s characteristics.
“I am my father’s son,” Ma’Khail said. “I feel like I carry it with me everywhere I go.”
Like into one more college season in which he’s excited about his new coaches (“I believe they definitely know what they are doing,” he said), looking forward to being even more of a team leader (“I’ve always felt I’ve had my hand in the pot when it comes to leadership,” he said) and wanting to improve and leaving on the highest of notes.
“Me and Devin communicated closely about the opportunity to come back, really make a name for ourselves and increase our draft stock,” Ma’Khail said. “We figured the best decision was for both of us to come back, be the leaders and take the reins of LSU.
“My best choice is coming back and proving myself as a legend leaving LSU.”