BATON ROUGE, La. — Check another box for LSU baseball’s dazzling freshman pitcher Ma’Khail Hilliard.
Hilliard turned out another quality start in his SEC debut against No. 24 Missouri on Sunday, leading the Tigers to a 7-5 victory. With the win, No. 16 LSU clinched its first SEC series victory of 2018 and improved to 14-7 on the year, 2-1 in SEC play.
“Let me tell you something,” LSU baseball coach Paul Mainieri said of Hilliard. “He’s a freshman, and to have some adversity like that in the first inning and then to go out there after that and throw 5 shutout innings and really dominate them, it just shows you what a winner the kid is.”
Missouri tested Hilliard from the start, roping back-to-back singles past diving infielders to open the first inning. The visiting Tigers traded two outs for a run, sacrificing twice to break Hilliard’s scoreless inning streak at 17.2, then pushed another run across on a two-out single to put Hilliard in an early 2-0 hole.
From there, Hilliard was spotless. Over the next five innings, Hilliard set down the first two batters he faced four times and didn’t allow a hit with fewer than two outs. Missouri was bizarrely productive with two outs, notching 4 hits in six innings against Hilliard, but the freshman right-hander stranded all of them on base and stranded 7 base runners overall.
Hilliard finished his day with 6 innings pitched, allowing 2 earned runs on 6 hits while striking out 6 and walking 1. The outing raised his ERA to a still-paltry 0.77 and opponents are batting .074 against Hilliard with runners in scoring position.
“It’s very important to lessen the damage whenever a team puts up 1 or 2 runs in the first inning, especially in the first parts of a game,” Hilliard said. “Because, man, if they get a big lead your team could shut down. I just made sure I kept trusting my defense to lessen the damage and stop the bleeding.”
After Hilliard exited, LSU turned the ball over to fellow freshman AJ Labas, who extended his scoreless inning streak to 12 with a 14-pitch seventh inning. Labas gave way to left-hander Nick Bush who threw a 1-2-3 eighth inning before giving way to senior Austin Bain. Bain allowed a 3-run home run to Missouri’s Kameron Misner with one out in the ninth before shutting the door for the victory.
Mainieri said postgame that he still expects Labas to start when the Tigers host Tulane on Wednesday. Sunday would have been Labas’ bullpen day anyway, so Mainieri figured he’d work Labas in live action instead of against air, especially after how LSU’s bullpen was taxed on Saturday.
Let’s hear it for Zach Watson
If there was any remaining doubt why sophomore outfielder Zach Watson was a preseason All-America honoree, the centerfielder did his best to erase it this weekend.
Watson went 3-for-5 with 2 RBI, 2 runs scored and a stolen base on Sunday, catalyzing LSU’s offensive rally in the first inning and helping punctuate the Tigers’ 3-run sixth. In three games against Missouri this weekend, Watson batted 8-for-14 (.571) with 5 RBI, 4 runs scored, 2 doubles and a home run.
“I just come out here and I’m up there trying to hit the crap out of the ball,” Watson said. “Really.”
This weekend also provided a huge boost for Watson’s numbers in the clutch. After the sixth inning of LSU’s game Friday, Watson was batting .118 for the year with runners in scoring position. Since then, Watson has gone on his RBI tear, improving that mark to .286 in 21 innings.
The patient ones
Bryce Jordan and Chris Reid have only started 17 and 10 of LSU’s 21 games respectively, but they’re tied for the team lead in walks because of days like Sunday.
Jordan walked three times and Reid walked two more to push their season totals to 13 apiece. And LSU’s offense made Missouri pay for walking Reid in particular, as the third baseman scored off both his free passes. No other LSU player walked Sunday.
What’s next for LSU baseball?
The LSU baseball team returns to action at Alex Box Stadium on Wednesday with a matchup against in-state rival Tulane. Wednesday will mark the first of two games the Tigers play against the Green Wave in 2018, with LSU scheduled to travel to New Orleans on April 18.
The game Wednesday will begin at 6:30 p.m. CT and be available to stream through WatchESPN.