During a bullpen session last week, before his start against South Alabama, LSU sophomore Ma’Khail Hilliard saw everything come together. His velocity. His curveball. His confidence.
After eight months of soreness, Hilliard felt like himself again. As he pitched, he realized he could throw without worrying about the health of his arm. Then Hilliard tossed three perfect innings against South Alabama.
“That was the best Ma'Khail has looked,” coach Paul Mainieri said, “and that was very encouraging for us.”
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Hilliard was LSU’s most reliable pitcher his freshman year, but his season ended at the Southeastern Conference tournament because of shoulder inflammation. He attributed the injury to overuse and not seeking treatment after starts. He didn’t pitch in another game until late February, two weeks into this season.
As he rehabbed, Hilliard tried to maintain the health of his arm without losing his mechanics. He had never dealt with an arm injury. He stretched a lot. But he inevitably didn’t pitch the same once he returned. He threw slower and without as much accuracy.
“It's a struggle getting back to what you used to be able to do,” Hilliard said. “It was really hard to come back.”
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Hilliard just didn’t feel the same way he did before his shoulder acted up. In the back of his mind, he worried about his health.
“It's taken a while for his stuff to get back to the level we saw him at last year,” pitching coach Alan Dunn said.
Though he wasn’t as effective, Hilliard kept pitching. Dunn said the only way to find his old form was to appear in games. For more than a month, he pitched a couple innings at a time, never more than two. He tired after the second inning.
Then everything clicked during that bullpen session, the culmination of months of recovery. During his start against South Alabama last Wednesday, his velocity rose to 88 mph. He only left the game so he could pitch that weekend.
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“That's probably the best it's felt since Auburn last year,” Hilliard said, referencing the day he beat eventual No. 1 draft pick Casey Mize.
Hilliard, who was scheduled to pitch Tuesday night against Southern, has reached the point LSU feels confident enough to use him on consecutive days and during the weekend.
“Now it's about getting guys out,” Dunn said. “I feel really good where he is and his ability to take the ball.”
A few days after his start against South Alabama, Hilliard tossed an inning against Texas A&M. One of his pitches made the rounds on social media. In the back of the video, Mainieri gaped.
“We need to get him out there more frequently,” Mainieri said. “I'm going to make every effort to do that.”