Ma’Khail Hilliard looked regal in Saturday purple.
Making his first appearance since being named the No. 2 starter in LSU’s rotation, the freshman right-hander spun six mostly magnificent innings to lead LSU to a 14-5 series clinching victory against Tennessee.
Unlike many of his previous starts, Hilliard (7-2) almost never needed to escape a jam on a cold and windy night in Alex Box Stadium. Outside of one shaky frame, he was in complete control.
“Ma’Khail was awesome,” said LSU coach Paul Mainieri.
It helped that the Tigers lineup turned in another banner night against Tennessee pitching. The Tigers (23-13, 8-6) pounded the Volunteers (21-16, 5-9) for 14 runs on 17 hits, both of which matched previous season highs. Five members of LSU’s starting nine collected multiple base knocks.
A night after drilling a pair of home runs to center field, sophomore third baseman Jake Slaughter enjoyed another fine night at the plate, going 2 for 5 with a two-run triple and his third home run of the series. The homer Saturday was ripped into the teeth of a gnarly wind.
For the second straight night, Slaughter was not available to answer questions because of an illness that has sapped his voice. Mainieri had no problem speaking on his behalf.
“I didn’t think there was any chance somebody would hit a home run to left field tonight,” Mainieri said. “And that ball he hit? I didn’t know a human being could hit a ball that hard.”
In the first two games of the series, LSU has tagged Tennessee pitching for 21 runs on 31 hits. LSU’s 16 hits Saturday were the most it has accumulated in a Southeastern Conference game this season.
Hilliard’s outing was defined by the number five.
Five was the number of times Hilliard faced the minimum number of Tennessee hitters in an inning. He logged three perfect innings, induced one inning ending double play and watched Hunter Feduccia end another inning by throwing a runner out at second.
Five was the number of runs LSU had provided Hilliard in his previous three starts. He was outstanding in those outings, too, striking out 21 while yielding just four runs in 17 innings, but twice he was saddled with the tough-luck loss.
“It felt good to go out tonight and put up some runs for him,” said junior outfielder Antoine Duplantis. “Finally give him a win he deserves.”
Therefore, it seemed fitting that five was also the number of runs his offensive teammates pushed across the plate in the first inning against Tennessee starter Garrett Stallings (4-3).
Duplantis, who tallied his second consecutive 3 for 5 night against Tennessee, started the scoring with an RBI single. Slaughter ended the scoring outburst by shooting a two-run triple into the right field corner. LSU sent 10 batters to the plate in the first frame.
"You don't really get games like that where the team just puts it on 'em in the first three innings," Hilliard said. "But that happened, and I felt very confident ... after that."
Five, as in fifth, was the only inning in which Hilliard struggled. He allowed a solo home run to cleanup hitter Niko Mascia to lead the inning off, then later could not find a two-strike put-away pitch to No. 9 hitter Wyatt Stapp.
“He was one pitch away from getting out of it,” Mainieri said.
With the help of a stiff wind that was blowing from the left field foul pole to its counterpart in right field, Stapp stung a two-run double into the right-centerfield gap to cut the lead to 6-3.
That was all Hilliard would allow, though, and in the home half of the fifth his teammates responded with a three-run frame of their own to push the lead back to six runs.
Keeping true to the theme of his night, he gave up five hits, recorded five fly ball outs and five ground ball outs. He had five strikeouts before he struck out the last batter he faced on five pitches.
Sunday will mark the halfway point of the SEC season. Also Sunday, LSU will have its first opportunity to sweep an SEC series.
“Tomorrow we have to have a killer instinct,” Mainieri said.