BATON ROUGE -- There hasn’t been much that former Central High standout and LSU freshman pitcher Ma’Khail Hilliard hasn’t been able to handle in his first season.
He’s not about to let a little arm soreness stand in the way of pitching on the biggest stage of his young career.
Before the team departed on Wednesday for the Oregon State regional, Hilliard was asked about his availability Sunday to start in what could amount to a championship game for the Tigers.
“I’d say there’s a pretty good chance,” said Hilliard, who landed on the Southeastern Conference’s All-Freshman team with a 9-5 record and 3.79 ERA.
Hilliard developed some discomfort after his latest start, an outing that lasted 4.2 innings in a 4-3 loss to Florida in last week’s SEC Tournament in Hoover, Ala.
Hilliard hadn’t picked up a baseball again until a “light toss” session during the first of LSU’s two workouts in Baton Rouge on Wednesday.
Hilliard expects to throw a regular bullpen either Thursday or Friday in preparation for the regional, which gets underway with LSU (37-25) meeting San Diego State at 3 p.m. Friday.
“You have to get that mindset of focusing on hitting my spots, getting my arm back to where it used to be,” Hilliard said.
That’s a niche Hilliard, whose win total tied him for third in the SEC, has carved out in LSU’s rotation as the Tigers No. 2 starter behind staff ace Zach Hess.
It’s not exactly a spot many observers, including head coach Paul Mainieri, envisioned the 6-foot, 150-pound Hilliard reaching upon his arrival after helping Central to the Class 5A state championship in 2017.
“Ma’Khail continues to do amazing things for our team,” Mainieri said. “This is what you need if you want to win games in the SEC; you need players to step up and do extraordinary things, and Ma’Khail did. He’s just an unflappable guy, and I’m very glad he’s on our team.”
The aforementioned plaudit from Mainieri came after Hilliard earned the SEC’s co-Freshman of the Week honors in his third start in league play. He limited eventual NCAA regional participant Mississippi State to thee hits in six shutout innings, striking out a career-high nine batters.
The performance came a week after what Hilliard called his best outing to that point: a four-hit, one-run, eight-strikeout performance in a 1-0 loss at Vanderbilt, another NCAA regional team.
“I’ve always wanted to play against Vanderbilt since I was younger,” Hilliard said. “I loved the rivalry between the two teams and for me to go out there and throw like that was pretty amazing.”
Before rising up the ranks from reliever to weekend starter, Hilliard provided his coaches with plenty of ammunition to crack LSU’s three-man league rotation.
Over the course of his first six outings – all but one in relief -- Hilliard failed to allow an earned run over 17.1 innings. He struck out 14 batters and walked six in those games in which the Tigers went 4-2.
When LSU hosted Missouri in its SEC opener, Hilliard moved into the team’s weekend rotation as a starter.
“I tried not to think about it too much because I didn’t want to mess up anything,” Hilliard said of his scoreless streak, which ended in his first start March 18 against Missouri. “People were coming up to me telling me how many innings it was. I wasn’t keeping track. It was simply trying to remain as consistent as possible and get through innings as quickly as possible.
“I didn’t know if they thought of me as a starter or a long relief pitcher,” Hilliard said. “Those were my two goals. I tried to stay more consistent throwing strikes, trying to get batters out in three pitches or less.”
While the back-to-back efforts against Vanderbilt and Mississippi State represented individual superlatives, Hilliard also experienced the wrath of trying to negotiate his way through the rugged SEC on a weekly basis.
That came at South Carolina on April 21 as the Gamecocks swept the Tigers in three games. Hilliard didn’t make it out of the 3rd inning, allowing a season-high eight runs on eight hits in an 11-4 defeat.
“It’s eye-opening coming into the SEC,” he said. “Every team is going to play as hard as they can. You have to go in and have more 110 percent on every pitch to win all the small battles and try and get the ‘W’.”
One of Hilliard’s prevailing qualities this season -- in addition to a deadly curveball – has been his ability to remain composed in the face of adversity.
Hilliard’s resilient nature served him well in bouncing back after his rocky outing against South Carolina, responding with two wins and no-decision over his last 4 starts of the regular season.
Included in that span was a 5-2 win over Ole Miss, the eventual SEC tournament champion, and 6-2 victory at Auburn in which Hilliard allowed seven hits over seven innings with seven strikeouts and outdueled Auburn’s ace Casey Mize -- a projected first-round pick in the upcoming Major League Baseball Draft.
“I just keep the focus and mindset to go as hard and as long as I can each and every day, give them the best I can,” said Hilliard, who struck out 70 batters and walked just 31 in 76 innings. “Once I worked my way into a starting position, it was amazing. I kept grinding until I felt like I progressed and became a vital part of this team.”