The brilliant freshman season being put together by Ma’Khail Hilliard hit its first bump in the road last week as South Carolina chased the rookie from the game in the third inning having allowed eight earned runs on eight hits.
Asked how long it had been since he’d been knocked around like that — since, obviously, it hasn’t happened at the college level — Hilliard briefly paused as if running back through his years as an ace at Central High.
“I’ve never had a start like that,” Hilliard responded after a few moments.
LSU (25-17, 9-9 Southeastern Conference) is counting on the rocky outing being a blip in the radar as opposed to a sign of more tough times to come as it hits the road for a pivotal three-game at Ole Miss (32-10, 10-8 SEC) that’s set to get underway on Thursday night. The Tigers begin the weekend one game behind Ole Miss and Arkansas for first place in the SEC West.
Hilliard, who’ll take the ball on Friday night in Oxford, says he purged the rare clunker from his mind and has gone through his between-start work week like it was any other.
“Basically just flush it,” Hilliard said. “It happens to the best of people. It happens in the pros with even the best pitchers, so you’ve just got to flush it and keep pushing.”
LSU coach Paul Mainieri acknowledged that he’s a little concerned about how his young gun will bounce back if only because his quiet confidence makes for a difficult read.
Hilliard recalled Mainieri essentially asking him if he was “shook” earlier in the week, albeit it not in that exact verbiage.
“He’s a young kid and he hasn’t gone through this before,” Mainieri said. “Ma’Khail is a very quiet kid, so sometimes his responses don’t necessarily reflect what he’s feeling inside. He’s kind of an introverted kid. So when I made a comment, I didn’t like the response because he didn’t exude confidence in himself.”
The coach continued: “Eric Walker happened to be standing right there, and I asked him ‘Hey Eric, did you ever had a bad outing in his freshman year?’ and he started to laugh. I said ‘See Ma’Khail, that’s a kid who was a Freshman All-American. He wasn’t perfect last year.’ You’re going to have days like that. What’s important is how you bounce back.”
Looking back, Hilliard attributed his struggles to an inability to bury his trusty curveball when ahead in the count. His fastball command was good, but with the scouting report on Hilliard getting around the league, every Gamecock was sitting on that hook once they got to two strikes.
“My curveball, I kept it in the zone too much,” Hilliard said. “You can’t leave the curveball in the zone on 0-2 and 1-2 counts when you’ve got them on the ropes and can strike them out. That’s where everything went wrong. Everybody knows about my curveball and they’re going to be sitting on it.”
Earlier this week Mainieri lamented not having Caleb Gilbert available last Sunday as the LSU bullpen squandered a 6-0 lead against South Carolina.
The situation — a starter departing with a lead but not going deep in the game — is exactly the scenario he’d envisioned for Gilbert’s role when he removed the junior from the weekend rotation.
Now it appears the right-hander will be back this weekend to bolster a struggling bullpen. Gilbert made the trip to Ole Miss and will throw a bullpen session on Wednesday night. If all goes well, he’ll be available to pitch in relief beginning Friday night.
“He told me with a big smile yesterday that ‘I feel excellent,’ like he hadn’t felt that way all year,” Mainieri said.
Gilbert revealed that he was shut down last week because of stiffness in his shoulder that flared up during the Tennessee series. Because Gilbert is an engineer, he specified that his “decelerators were inflamed.”
“When you throw, your arm has to decelerate to slow down,” Gilbert explained. “So the muscles that cause that in back of the shoulder.”
Gilbert has thrown four times since the shoulder stiffness and excepts to be able to pitch this weekend, barring any setbacks in the bullpen session on Wednesday night. He got a cortisone injection last Friday as LSU proceeded with caution.
The injured trio of Gilbert, Walker and Josh Smith, who all live together, could do nothing but watch from their apartment as the Gamecocks swept LSU in Columbia.
“It was definitely tough,” Gilbert said. “It’s just a deflating feeling when you can’t do anything about it and you’re not even there to support.”
LSU hopes he’ll be able to do more than lend emotional support as it tries to topple a top-10 team on the road.
HOSTILE ENVIRONMENT, ELITE FOE AWAIT
LSU’s struggles away from Alex Box Stadium have been well documented. An 0-4 week on the road dropped the Tigers to a dismal 2-11 away from the Box this season.
It won’t get any easier as LSU heads to Swayze Field, a ballpark known for the fans’ propensity to hurl insults — among other things — at opponents from pre-game warm-ups on. Mainieri recalled a previous trip in which a fan threw a hotdog at LSU’s bullpen catcher.
“I don’t think Ole Miss people like LSU much,” Mainieri said in what might be the understatement of the year. “There are no issues between the teams. I think it’s just the fan bases that don’t care for each other all that much. They’re pretty vocal … Your team has to be poised and confident to handle that type of environment.”
The tougher test will come from a loaded Rebel club that ranks among the best Ole Miss coach Mike Bianco has had during his long tenure in Oxford.
Ole Miss is a complete team, ranking third in the SEC in runs scored and fourth in ERA. Thomas Dillard (.318, 9 HR, 44 RBI) is among the league’s top run producers and lefty ace Ryan Rollison (5-3, 3.19 ERA) is an elite arm who has struck out 77 batters in 59.1 innings.
“There’s a lot of challenges,” Mainieri said. “I don’t really see a team with any weaknesses. Ole Miss has great starting pitching, their bullpen is awesome and they’ve got a veteran lineup that’s tough to strike out. They’ve got power and they’ve got some speed. I can’t imagine that Mike would feel he’s had many teams that are better than this one.”
– Freshman right-hander Nick Storz is making the trip to Oxford. Mainieri said the plan is for him to throw a bullpen session sometime this weekend.
– Midweek starter AJ Labas was left off the travel roster after going the distance in a complete game shutout against Lamar on Tuesday night. He wouldn’t be able to pitch in relief after throwing 103 pitches.
– With the return of Smith, LSU will be taking its full complement of position players on the road for the first time this season.