LSU senior right-hander Ma’khail Hilliard said he woke up in a pool of his own sweat Saturday morning, uncertain of what he would be able to contribute to his team in his latest starting role.
After combating a prolonged high fever with aspirin, Hilliard went out and gave the Tigers a golden opportunity at their first Southeastern Conference sweep of the season.
Instead, for the second time in three weeks, LSU was left to lament what could have been. Auburn’s Brody Moore delivered a ninth-inning ,two-out bases-loaded walk-off RBI single off reliever Ty Floyd for a 2-1 AU win.
“It sucks,” Hilliard said. “Like I’ve always known, it’s really difficult to get a sweep in this league. As long as I keep pitching the way I am, I know the cards will fall into the place.”
LSU baseball coach Paul Mainieri said Hilliard had mentioned to him during the week of “feeling weak” but was unaware of the elevated temperature his pitcher woke up to on game day.
Mainieri said Hilliard met conference protocols and was cleared to play having passed his coronavirus test in advance of the series.
“He pitched remarkable, very courageously,” Mainieri said. “He made a lot of big pitches. He deserved to win the game. We just couldn’t give him the offensive support. It’s hard to win a game when you get one hit after your first batter of the game. We had been swinging the bats so well and inexplicably we went cold. We actually had a couple of opportunities and just couldn’t capitalize.”
LSU (29-18, 9-15) won its third series of the season, having defeated Auburn (20-23, 6-18) in the first two meetings, 8-3 and 9-6.
However, for a team trying to secure one of 12 spots in the May 25-30 SEC tournament, the 11th place Tigers could have used the additional cushion a series sweep would have provided.
The Tigers return home to face nationally ranked Louisiana Tech on Tuesday at 6:30 and welcome Alabama to Alex Box Stadium for a three-game series beginning next Friday.
“We knew coming here it was going to be tough,” Mainieri said. “The records are not indicative of the teams in this league. These guys lost nine (actually eight) one-run games this year. They’re capable of beating anybody. We’re capable of beating anybody despite what the records say.
“This was a hard-fought series win for us and I’m glad we won the series. Obviously, we would have wanted the game three win also. We’re trying to accumulate as many wins as we can to improve our resume. It was an opportunity lost but every game you lose is an opportunity lost.”
LSU freshman first baseman Tre’ Morgan led off the game with a solo homer, driving the third pitch from Auburn starter Richard Fitts over the right-field fence for a 1-0 lead.
The Tigers only other hit came with two outs in the top of the seventh when shortstop Jordan Thompson singled and advanced to second on a throwing error. They went on to load the bases with a walk to Brody Drost and Drew Bianco was hit by a pitch, resulting in a change of relievers with Carson Skipper getting catcher Alex Milazzo to line to the mound to end the inning.
Fitts entered the game with an 0-3 record and 6.96 ERA and allowing a hit per inning. He pitched six innings of one-hit baseball, walked two and struck out seven.
“He was considered one of the top prospects in the league and was having a really bad year,” Mainieri said of Fitts. “This was obviously his performance of the year. I don’t know why he saved it for us, but he was prancing around on the mound out there like he was an All-American.”
Hilliard, with much less run support Saturday than he got in his 6-2 win at Auburn in May 2018, almost duplicated that performance.
Three seasons ago, Hilliard threw 7.1 innings, gave up seven hits and two runs, struck out seven, walked two and threw 61 strikes in 97 pitches. He got credit for the win.
Hilliard again lasted 7.1 innings in his latest outing against Auburn which resulted in a no-decision. He allowed four hits and one run, struck out six, walked none and threw 75 strikes in 104 pitches.
The former Central High standout retired the first eight batters he faced until Judd Ward’s solo homer to tie the game in the third inning.
“I took my meds, hydrated a lot and that’s all I needed to go out there on the mound and fill up the zone,” Hilliard said. “I wanted this opportunity to prove myself and prove to everybody else in the SEC we are a pretty good team. We can come out and sweep but sometimes things don’t go the way as planned.”
Hilliard pitched into the eighth inning, getting a fly ball from Kason Howell for the first out. He left in favor of relief pitcher Jacob Hasty, who inherited runners at first and second, but he was able to get Ward to bounce into a 6-4-3 double play to end the inning.
Auburn loaded the bases when Ryan Bliss singled, Woley was intentionally walked, and Steven Williams reached on the second catcher’s interference of the game against Milazzo.
Hasty struck out pinch-hitter Bryson Ware for the second out, setting the stage for Moore who drove an 0-1 pitch past a diving Thompson at shortstop and into left field for Auburn’s first walk-off win against LSU since 2012.
“I hadn’t had the best weekend, but you just have to go up to the plate like that never happened,” Moore said of his game-winning hit. “You just have to get back to what you do as an individual player, and if we all do that I think we’re in pretty good shape.”