AUBURN, Ala. — Ma’Khail Hilliard has thought a lot recently about what it takes to start games. As a pitcher, he sets the tone for LSU whenever he starts, and the role requires a heightened measure of focus to last deeper into his outings.
“My mental focus has to be at such a high level,” Hilliard said, “to where I know for a fact when that first pitch comes out of my hand and it starts off the game that I'm going to be doing my deal.”
Hilliard had to think about this more, because suddenly, he has become a starter again after two years in the bullpen.
Last week, the senior started for the first time this season during LSU’s midweek game against Grambling. He delivered three scoreless innings. With LSU searching for a reliable third starter, coach Paul Mainieri debated using Hilliard again later that week against No. 1 Arkansas. He informed Hilliard he would start after the first game of LSU’s doubleheader. Hilliard had an hour between games.
Making his first weekend start since 2019, Hilliard limited one of the most productive teams in the country to one run over a season-high five innings. He looked like the best version of himself. His curveball dove through the zone. His fastball landed for strikes. His cutter fooled hitters. Behind Hilliard, LSU avoided the sweep, helping its NCAA tournament chances.
“You can obviously tell he's been there,” sophomore third baseman Cade Doughty said. “He looks incredible out there. It's really big for us to have that third guy. I think he can do it well, like he showed against Arkansas.”
Ever since junior right-hander Jaden Hill tore his UCL in April and underwent season-ending surgery, LSU has searched for a third starter. The Tigers initially used freshman right-hander Blake Money, but with underdeveloped secondary pitches, Money allowed 10 runs over five innings in his two starts.
LSU then tried freshman right-hander Will Hellmers. He surrendered one run over three innings against Ole Miss, but again, Hellmers hasn’t fully developed his secondary pitches, making him reliant on a fastball that sits in the low 90s.
With Hellmers, LSU’s typical midweek starter, unavailable last Tuesday because of a final exam, Hilliard started against Grambling. He dominated. And now, as LSU plays this weekend against Auburn, Hilliard may start again in a place that provided one of the highlights of his career.
Hilliard found a spot in the weekend rotation as a freshman. On May 18, 2018, he started against Casey Mize. Hilliard pitched 7⅓ innings and allowed two runs, out-dueling the eventual No. 1 overall pick in the Major League Baseball draft.
After that freshman season in which he went 9-5 with a 3.79 ERA to earn Freshman All-American honors, Hilliard thought he would remain in the weekend rotation.
“Things don't go your way sometimes,” Hilliard said.
As LSU recruited more pitchers, Hilliard fell into the bullpen. He managed tightness in his shoulder his sophomore year. He had tendinitis in his forearm his junior season.
“It plays its part whenever you're going out there and throwing and pitching on the mound,” Hilliard said. “You don't want to have that thought in the back of your mind of, 'Is it going to feel good today?' instead of letting it rip.”
Though healthier this year, Hilliard had been inconsistent. One outing, he allowed six runs in relief. The next, he pitched 3⅓ scoreless frames. He had moments where he resembled the freshman version of himself, but not on a consistent basis until last week.
“He just looks like himself when he comes in as a starter,” senior Devin Fontenot said. “Some people are like that. Ma'Khail gets the job in any situation most of the time, but he definitely looks more like his old self. He wants to do it. He's told everybody he wants to do it. And he's proved he can do it.”
Whether Hilliard starts won’t be up to him. Mainieri has said LSU will wait to determine who pitches until after the second game of the series. He doesn’t want to hold one of the team’s better pitchers with a chance to win a game and get closer to a postseason berth. Hilliard sat in the bullpen Friday night.
But LSU would like to start Hilliard in the final game of its series against Auburn. If it does, he will return to a field that once provided the stage for so much success.
“It does kinda feel like it's coming full circle,” Hilliard said. “I'm ready for the opportunity to go back out there and do my deal.”