NASHVILLE, Tenn. — By the time his career is done, Vanderbilt starting pitcher Mason Hickman will have quite the story to tell.
“It’s really interesting to see over the course of your college career how every outing you have adds a new chapter into a book,” Hickman said. “It’s like putting a memory into a library for you.”
The Hendersonville, Tennessee, native’s chapter on West End features victories on the biggest stage, but it began with the assurance garnered from a start just more than one month into his freshman season.
“I think every pitcher will find there’s one start they have they can always lean on as a confidence builder because they’ve experienced that success before,” Hickman said. “They know that they’re capable of it. They can use that experience to draw upon and create confidence for themselves. That’s exactly what that start did for me early on in my career.”
On March 25, 2018, Hickman took the mound in the second game of a doubleheader – a seven-inning affair against No. 19 LSU – looking to help the Commodores to a series win on the squad’s first SEC home weekend. One weekend earlier, the right-hander made his conference debut.
“I remember sitting in my room before my start against Mississippi State and being so nervous it was going to be my first weekend start as a freshman,” Hickman said. “It was a combination of nerves, anxiousness and being excited, honestly. I went into the weekend not really knowing who the Sunday guy was that week. Saturday night they told me I’d be starting the following day.”
Hickman held the Bulldogs to four hits while earning the win. In his first SEC start at Hawkins Field, the newcomer would need to be even better. Hickman was up against an equally impressive freshman arm in LSU right-hander Ma’Khail Hilliard.
The matchup would not disappoint.
“Honestly, the only thing I remember is that game being a blur,” Hickman said. “Ma’Khail Hilliard pitched extremely well on their side as well. That game ended up being like an hour and 45 minutes or something. It was extremely short game because it was such a good pitcher’s duel.”
Hickman and Hilliard went back and forth.
Vanderbilt struck early with fellow freshman Philip Clarke manufacturing a first inning run. Clarke, who led off with a single, stole second and advanced to third on a flyout before racing home on a one-out passed ball. It would be the Commodores lone run.
“Both sides weren’t giving in on the mound and it was a fun game to be a part of when you’re pitching and facing off against another really good arm,” Hickman said. “You’re just trying to avoid barrels and keep getting quick outs to get the team back in to hit.”
Hickman stranded LSU runners in scoring position in the first and second innings but did not allow a hit the remainder of the way, retiring 16 of the final 18 batters he faced including sitting down 12-straight at one point.
“I just remember executing a lot of pitches early,” Hickman said of the start. “I got the pitch count to remain pretty low the whole start. I executed a lot of good stuff while I was ahead, forcing their batters to be challenged by what I was throwing at the plate. I executed really well that day on stuff that I needed to get guys out in important situations to hang on to that lead.”
At game’s end, Hickman had tossed Vanderbilt’s first seven-inning, complete game shutout since 2009 (Nick Christiani vs. Belmont), lifting Vanderbilt to a 1-0 win. The Pope John Paul II product fanned nine Tiger batters and became a staple in the weekend rotation.
“It seems like he’s always in control of his emotions and he’s always in control of the game,” senior catcher Ty Duvall said. “The game is never moving too fast for him. The situation is never too big for him. He finds a way to be comfortable and do his thing in any given situation.
“He possessed that as a freshman as well as a sophomore and junior. It doesn’t matter the stage, opponent or anything.”
Hickman went on to be named a freshman All-American while leading the Commodores with eight victories. His lights-out performance against LSU earned him SEC Pitcher of the Week and offered an early preview of a dominant Commodore career to come.
“It established that I had the potential to make an impact for a team and that I could potentially put us in some situations to win some baseball games,” Hickman said. “It allowed me to grab some early momentum and confidence my freshman year.”