This has been a season that's really come full circle for senior pitcher Ma'Khail Hilliard. There were times early in the season when he fell out of the rotation, or he'd be brought out of the bullpen with a struggling pitcher on the mound to finish an inning in a very difficult spot.
Then he earned a midweek start, then he started the third game of an SEC series. This last weekend, he started the second game of the Oregon regional and on Saturday, Hilliard will get the nod in the opening game against Tennessee in the super regional.
"It feels amazing, it's crazy that you're getting these opportunities. I get a little emotional talking about it because it's my senior year and it means so much to me. It's the same mindset, it's just another game," Hilliard said. "Not going to put too much pressure on myself and do whatever it takes to get the job done. Just try to go at them and last as long as I can and pass the ball on to the next guy."
Tennessee is an offense that has a ton of power in its lineup and plays in a very home run friendly ball park as well. With capacity expected to be full in Knoxville, one of the goals will be to not let the Volunteers crowd get into the game too early.
Hilliard is as composed as they come on the mound and knows how important it is to start fast in a hostile environment like the one the Tigers walk into this weekend.
"When I'm on the mound, I block out everything else except for the coaches and the players," Hilliard said. "I know Tennessee has an explosive lineup but I'm gonna go right at them, let the defense work and put them away early in counts."
On Friday, LSU coach Paul Mainieri announced Hilliard would start game one, Landon Marceaux game two on Sunday and AJ Labas on Monday if necessary. The primary reason for starting Marceaux in game two was to give him an extra day's rest after a 45 pitch relief outing in the final game against Oregon.
But it's a situation that works out perfectly for the Tigers as Marceaux will be on the mound for a game that will potentially decide whether the Tigers pack their bags for Omaha or for a long plane ride back to Baton Rouge ending the season. Marceaux did admit to pushing back a little bit when Mainieri told him of the news but he also understands the significance of that game two matchup.
"I have quite the experience pitching on the second day. You're either gonna win and go to Omaha or you're gonna try to keep your hopes alive for the next day," Marceaux said. "It's a very important day so I'm looking forward to it. We couldn't get here fast enough."
But it's not just the starters who will have an opportunity to add on to their growing legacy this weekend. One of the primary revelations from the Oregon regional was the pitching out of the bullpen, particularly the freshman arms in Javen Coleman, Garrett Edwards and Will Hellmers.
All of them played significant roles in those four straight wins and certainly left a strong impression on Marceaux and the other veteran arms on the roster. Coleman is a guy who Marceaux has taken under his wing for the last month of the season and the results in his appearances are showing a future star on the Tigers' hands.
"Javen Coleman, he's blossomed into a key piece in our rotation in our pitching staff," Marceaux said. "He was telling me he was very uncomfortable being around us and playing in front of the crowds and he came to me with that and we talked about it. It was very much a heart to heart. I think it's showed how comfortable he's gotten, he was up to 95 the other day in Oregon.
"Will Hellmers and Garrett, they've been doing it all year long. Hellmers has started midweek games, tied for the team lead in wins so he's been doing it all year long. Garrett hasn't had the breaks, he's had a pitch here or there that he got bit by but that's part of being a freshman, learning how to deal with that and he's been rock solid."
Veterans Devin Fontenot and Trent Vietmeier will certainly be used as well, particularly if the Tigers find themselves in a jam, but it was important to see those freshman arms step up in similar situations as well.
In the end, this is a staff that's pitching as confidently as is has all season and will need that to translate this weekend in Knoxville.
"It's going to be great to go out there and take the ball first," Hilliard said. "Start the team off on a good track because I believe in everybody on the team and their abilities. Whatever happens, happens but I know we're gonna lay it all on the line."