One out, 0-0, top of the second inning on Friday night in Alex Box Stadium and LSU starting pitcher Jaden Hill is fighting his way out of a bases loaded jam against No.1 nationally ranked Vanderbilt.
The junior righthander, considered in the preseason as one of the five best 2021 major league draft prospects in the collegiate ranks, fires a pitch.
Home plate umpire Jeff Head barely has time to call “ball” when Hill grimaces and quickly turns away from the plate to walk back to the mound slowly and deliberately as if he was assessing something.
Tigers’ coach Paul Mainieri sensed immediately something was wrong.
“He kind of stretched his forearm and I thought `Oh no’,” Mainieri said. “He didn’t call us out. But I’ve been around long enough I can tell when a pitcher does something like that.”
Mainieri and trainer Corey Couture leave the dugout and meet Hill on the mound.
“Jaden, are you OK?” Mainieri asks.
“I felt something in my elbow,” Hill replies.
“Are you in pain?” Mainieri and Couture both quiz Hill.
“No, I’m not in any pain at all, I just felt something weird in my elbow,” Hill says.
After some small talk to see if Hill feels any pain, Mainieri and Couture ask if he wants to throw a warm-up pitch. Hill does.
“This doesn’t feel right,” Hill says.
So, Mainieri removes Hill from the game, reliever Alex Brady enters and gives up five runs with two Vandy swings of the bat and the Commodores are on their way to an 11-2 win over a reeling team sitting in the SEC dungeon with five straight league losses in dropping its first three conference series of the season.
“I was really numb after that,” said a somber Mainieri of Hill’s injury. “I know we still had a ballgame to play, but it wasn’t just any kid. It was a kid with a lot at stake this year.
“When something like that happens, it’s so heartbreaking. You go in this business and you see something like that happen and it just rips your heart out. It’s hard to keep your focus on the outcome of a game when you feel so bad for a youngster. That’s how I felt the rest of the night.”
Even if Hill hadn’t gotten hurt, it seemed a foregone conclusion the Tigers (17-10, 1-7 SEC) would join the immediate previous victims of virtually untouchable Vanderbilt pitcher Jack Leiter.
By time Leiter (7-0) gave up the first of the three hits that snapped his streak of 20 ⅔ consecutive no-hit innings, Vanderbilt (22-3, 7-1 SEC) was already leading the Tigers 7-0.
LSU’s only highlight of its four-hit night of batting futility was third baseman Cade Doughty’s solo homer in the Tigers’ sixth. It was the first homer allowed this season by Leiter in 42 innings.
“He was able to locate his pitches really well and we helped him by swinging at pitches out of the zone,” said Doughty of Leiter, who struck out 12 and walked three.
As did Vandy starting pitcher Kumar Rocker in the Commodores’ 13-1 series opening win Thursday, LSU batters seemed almost hypnotized by Leiter’s command.
They either futilly swung as Leiter’s pitchers tailed toward the outside corners of the plate and stood frozen in disbelief as Leiter dropped curveballs into the strikeout zone.
Saturday’s game three starts at 2 p.m and the Tigers can’t wait for this series to conclude. Vanderbilt has outscored LSU 24-3 and has outhit the Tigers 30-8 and now Hill as a date for an MRI exam on Monday.
“We’re going to keep our optimism up and hope for the best,” Mainieri said.