The revelation of Ma’Khail Hilliard has been a season-saving force of stability amid a turbulent season for LSU, but the unusually-poised freshman picked a bad time to lose his control.
Hilliard, who issued five walks and hit two batters, lasted only three innings and departed having been tagged for five earned runs. Only 35 of his 76 pitches found the strike zone, setting the tone for a night in which LSU pitching handed out 10 walks.
“I normally throw a lot of strikes, but today was just one of those days,” Hilliard said.
The rare rough outing put LSU in another deep hole, and Alabama right-hander Jake Walters went about making sure they stayed right there. The senior stymied LSU to the tune of one run on four hits over eight innings as Alabama even the series with a 6-1 victory at Alex Box Stadium on Saturday night.
LSU (30-21, 13-13 Southeastern Conference) would been staring down the prospects of being swept by last-place Alabama (26-26, 7-19 SEC) were it not for an error-aided comeback on Friday night. LSU has been wholly outplayed in every inning of the series to this point besides that eighth-inning rally on Friday night.
The two sides will play a rubber match Sunday as the Tigers look to avoid what would be a damaging series loss for their NCAA Tournament prospects, not to mention a chance to take sole possession of third place in the SEC West.
“If we want to hold hope out for an NCAA bid, tomorrow is probably a must-win game,” LSU coach Paul Mainieri said. “We have to win this series at home.”
Hilliard was all over the place from the word go, but he managed to wiggle out of trouble in the first inning after issuing a two-out walk and hitting a batter. It quickly became apparent that the freshman didn’t have control over his fastball, which prevented him from having any chance to get to his put-away curveball.
“I just lost the feel for it,” Hilliard said. “I just tried to limit the damage that was done.”
Consecutive four-pitch walks and a walk pitch set Alabama up to do damage in the second inning. A sacrifice fly got the Crimson Tide on the board, and leadoff hitter Cobie Vance crushed a poorly-located cutter for a two-run home run that carried the bleachers in left field.
Alabama loaded the bases from there and got a fourth run when Hilliard plunked left fielder Keith Holcombe with the bags full. A two-out RBI single from Vance in the third inning brought home a fifth run and Hilliard departed after three innings, the second-shortest start of his career.
“Many of the issues were self inflicted,” Mainieri said.
LSU, meanwhile, couldn’t muster much offense against Walters. The red-hot Daniel Cabrera got LSU on the board with an RBI single in the fourth, but the Tigers banged into four double plays in the first five innings, including two off the bat of the fleet-footed Zach Watson.
“The double plays that we hit into hurt us bad,” Mainieri said. “Every single one of them was smashed. We smashed so many balls tonight, and it just seemed like everything was right at them or their infielders made really nice plays to keep us from putting anything together.”
Cam Sanders took over for Hilliard in the fourth and kept LSU in the game. He worked through three scoreless innings, stranding a runner in scoring position in each, before being charged with a run after being replaced by Trent Vietmeier in the seventh.
LSU, much like the night before, was gift wrapped a chance to get back into the game in the eighth inning. Nick Webre drew a pinch-hit walk and Beau Jordan reached on an error, but Antoine Duplantis popped up to end the inning.
LSU planned to give the ball to freshman AJ Labas for a second straight Sunday, but Mainieri announced after the game that Labas has been scratched due to a sore shoulder. Veteran lefty Nick Bush will likely start instead and Alabama will counter with freshman lefty Garret Rukes (1-2, 2.84 ERA). First pitch is set for 2 p.m.