In all his years of coaching, Paul Mainieri still has not quite figured out how much stock to put into preseason scrimmage outings, but he will admit he started to feel a little worried about Ma’Khail Hilliard.
That "it factor" the LSU coach had seen throughout the fall from his freshman right-hander was conspicuously absent, and so was the zip on his fastball. This was the guy Mainieri propped up as a candidate to close out games, and Hilliard suddenly lost some luster.
Then, just this week, it came back. The cutting fastball was leaving Hilliard’s fingers in excess of 90 mph again. The curveball, which has already generated buzz in the clubhouse, looked as good as ever.
Hilliard swaggered back to the dugout Monday at practice, and Mainieri made a point to tell him how good the outing was.
“He gave all the credit to his dyed hair,” Mainieri said.
At the moment, the new ’do is a sort of Honey Badger look, hidden under his purple cap is a shock of fading blond hair. Hilliard said it needs to get touched up soon.
This is sort of a tradition, and he can not really explain why, but it has always correlated with positive results. It started when he was a sophomore at Central High School, when he was struck by a peculiar thought.
If I dye it red, maybe I’ll throw flames.
“I got up on the mound and I started throwing harder,” Hilliard said. “It’s been working ever since.”
Hilliard is one of several newcomers vying to fill a void in the back end of the LSU bullpen. LSU’s closer during last year's College World Series run, Zack Hess, is now a starter. Hunter Newman and Doug Norman are gone. Caleb Gilbert, who was phenomenal in relief last season, will start opening night.
LSU could pair fellow freshman Devin Fontenot with Hilliard to handle the eighth and ninth innings of games. Once freshmen Nick Storz and A.J. Labas return from injuries, they might enter the mix as well, putting the high-pressure situations in the hands of babes by the time the Southeastern Conference schedule rolls around.
That is of little concern to Mainieri.
“Through my coaching career, even before LSU, I’ve always had freshmen as outstanding closers,” Mainieri said. “Eventually they end up moving into the rotation, but they handle it. I don’t know what it is.
“Maybe they’re not experienced enough to understand how much pressure there is.”
He is not wrong. LSU has had some great successes with freshmen closing down games. Hess was a menace to opposing lineups last season after taking over the closing role. Jesse Stallings saved 12 games in 2015 as a freshman, and Matty Ott’s 16 saves as a freshman in 2009 are still a school record.
Only time will tell if Hilliard or Fontenot — or any other newcomer, for that matter — has what it takes to be the guy, Mainieri said. But that will not stop him from opening the door to that high-leverage situation.
“I just think Ma’Khail and Devin have something about them that I don’t think the pressure is going to get to them,” Mainieri said.
Though Hilliard does not possess the live arm that is typically seen out of late-inning relievers in modern-day college baseball, he does have the temperament and belief in his ability that the job requires.
Mainieri was impressed by the way he shouldered the load when Central attached its wagon to him in last year’s playoffs.
It was Hilliard — a starter for the majority of the season — who clinched his team’s state championship by striking out the side on 10 pitches in the 13th inning.
“I think he’s an ultra-confident kid,” Mainieri said. “He realized last year, what he did, was pretty extraordinary. I think that confidence has carried over here.”
Fontenot falls on a different end of the spectrum. Instead of a blazing blond hairdo, the first thing that stands out about him is his soft Texas drawl. But there is nothing soft about the way he pitches.
He throws what pitching aficionados would call a “heavy ball.” As his pitches hiss toward the plate at low-90s velocity, they dive down and in on right-handers.
“I’m not really sure where that comes from,” Fontenot said.
Wherever the origin, it is not fun to face.
Mainieri, who is never afraid to make a comparison, said the way Fontenot spins the ball sometimes reminds him of Ott and Louis Coleman.
“Right-handers don’t like to hit off him very much, because that ball sinks in on them,” Mainieri said. “A lot of times, if they get the barrel of the bat through, they’re banging it off their heel or their leg.”
Roles are not exactly set yet, and might not be for some time. There is a chance neither Hilliard nor Fontenot throws on opening day if it is a tight game, Mainieri said, because he feels that is the day when younger players can get most overwhelmed by the moment.
At some point soon, that late-game burden will fall on some young shoulders. Mainieri and LSU still are not sure who will claim the role, but that is what the real games are for.
LSU Bullpen Preview
52 Ma’Khail Hilliard, Fr. RHP, no statistics
28 Devin Fontenot, Fr. RHP, no statistics
29 Nick Bush, So., LHP, 1-1, 3.75 ERA, 22 K/19 BB
18 Austin Bain, Sr. RHP, 1-0, 4.74 ERA, 32 K/19 BB
27 Matthew Beck, So., RHP, 1-0, 3.65 ERA, 21 K/11 BB
Best stuff: Hilliard will not blow anybody away with his fastball (yet), his curveball is top-notch and he has been generating a lot of swing-and-miss with it against teammates.
Big question: Can LSU build the bridge? One of the reasons the Tigers had so much success late last season was because they could hand the ball directly from the starters to lock-down relievers. They need to identify those guys in 2018.
Final thoughts: The Tigers should get a shot in the arm once big right-handed freshmen Nick Storz and AJ Labas return from offseason surgery, but the bullpen is still a source of some anxiety. LSU will rely on a lot of freshmen to hold things down in the bullpen — freshmen that it likes so far. But it will not truly know what it has until the games start.