Desperate times, desperate measures for LSU, Mainieri says Hilliard might be used in bullpen

Scooter Hobbs

It appeared that LSU and head coach Paul Mainieri might have found that elusive third starting pitcher last weekend when senior Ma’Khail Hilliard’s first start of the season was the key in salvaging the third and final game against No. 1-ranked Arkansas.

In normal times, he might have.

And, ideally, Hilliard will be available for the third game Saturday when LSU travels to Auburn for the early weekend, which begins tonight with Game 1.

But these are desperate times for the Tigers (27-17, 7-14 SEC) and part of Mainieri’s rallying cry for a strong finish to a thus-far disappointing season is to do whatever it takes to win one game at a time.

Hilliard, who’s been up and down since earning a spot in the weekend rotation in 2018, showed signs of that freshman season last week in holding Arkansas to one run in five innings to key the Tigers’ 5-4 victory.

“It’s quite possible that Hilliard will be used out of the bullpen in Game 1 or Game 2,” Mainieri said. “We’re going to play them one game at a time. If we need Ma’Khail in Game 1 or Game 2, we’ll do it. We’re not going to save him.”

He’ll worry about Saturday and that third game when it gets here, with the old standby, “TBA,” officially penciled in for now.

LSU is set for the first two games — opening starters Landon Marceaux and A.J. Labas haven’t been the Tigers’ problem — but an erratic bullpen might force Hilliard into early action.

“We need to finish strong,” Mainieri said. “We need to win some series.”

It’s doable.

After playing six of its first seven Southeastern Conference series against teams ranked in the nation’s top 10, none of the last three are ranked anywhere, with Alabama and Texas A&M rounding out the SEC schedule in the following weeks.

Auburn (19-21, 5-16) is one of three teams below LSU in the overall standings, tied for 12th in the 14-team league with Texas A&M and Missouri. At worst, LSU can’t let two of them leap-frog them, as 12 go the SEC Tournament.

Auburn won its first conference series of the season last weekend at Georgia, taking the final two high-scoring games 10-6 and 9-7.

And that’s what worries Mainieri about the War Eagles, whose struggles have come mostly on the mound (the 6.64 ERA in SEC games is 13th in the conference).

However, “They can really hit,” Mainieri said. “They have power and their ballpark is a home run haven. The ball carries. They’ve got a short left-field fence.”

In fact, the towering wall in left field is reminiscent of the Green Monster in Boston’s Fenway Park and is one of the quirks of playing at Auburn.

“Their record is not indicative of that team,” Mainieri said.

He’d like to think his team’s record isn’t either, but the final three weeks will likely determine that.

“It’s been tough, I’m not going to deny that,” Mainieri said. “There’s been some heartbreaks. We can finish with a flourish, show these kids what I preach all the time, that it’s easy to feel good about yourself when things are going good.

“If we can salvage something out of this season, it’s something that these kids will cherish the rest of their lives.”

It will have to start this weekend.

Pitching Matchups

6:30 p.m. Today (ESPNU)

LSU, RH Landon Marceaux (4-4, 2.15 ERA, 67 IP, 13 BB, 80 SO) vs. AU, LH Jack Owen (1-3, 5.64 ERA, 30.1 IP, 7 BB, 28 SO).

7 p.m. Friday (SEC Network)

LSU, RH A.J. Labas (3-1, 4.22 ERA, 64 IP, 11 BB, 59 SO) vs. AU, Trace Blight (4-4, 7.71 ERA, 39.2 IP, 17 BB, 37 SO).

2 p.m. Saturday

LSU TBA vs. AU TBA.””

Louisiana State University’s Ma’Khail Hilliard pitches in relief against Florida State University during the NCAA Baseball Super Regional at Alex Box Stadium in Baton Rouge, Louisiana on Saturday, June 8, 2019. (AP Photo/Lake Charles American Press, Kirk Meche)

Kirk Meche / Special to the American Press

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