OXFORD — Ole Miss is playing its best baseball at the right time.
The Rebels defeated Clemson in commanding fashion Saturday night, logging 11 hits and three home runs and shutting the Tigers out for the first six innings of the game on the way to a 6-1 win in the second round of the 2019 Oxford Regional. With the win, Ole Miss advances to the championship round of the Oxford Regional, putting the Rebels within one win of advancing to Super Regionals. Ole Miss has two chances to win one game, with the first chance coming Sunday night at 8 p.m.
"You've heard and seen teams peaking at the right time and teams getting hot at the right time," Ole Miss coach Mike Bianco said. "You see that every year. Hopefully we're one of those stories that at the end, people say 'They played their best baseball at the end.' We all knew back in February that we were talented. And there are times we've showed it. But we haven't done it consistently enough throughout the year. But the last couple weeks we've played really well."
Like Will Ethridge before him in Game 1 of the Oxford Regional on Friday, Nikhazy was borderline un-hittable on Saturday. Nikhazy allowed four hits in eight innings of one-run baseball, striking out nine batters with three walks on 116 pitches. This outing comes after Nikhazy threw eight shutout innings on three hits versus Texas A&M in his last start at the SEC Tournament, giving the freshman a 0.56 ERA since the start of postseason play.
"I'm trying my best to continue doing what I'm doing," Nikhazy said of his postseason success. "And getting better every single day with my bullpens and my work ethic. As I got later into the season, I've really focused on what helps me pitch in between my outings and what's going to make me better."
Nikhazy ended the eighth inning with a whirl, striking out Clemson's projected first-round pick Logan Davidson for the second time, stranding two runners on base to preserve the Rebels' five-run lead. The freshman returned for the bottom of the ninth inning, but walked the first batter he faced before giving way to closer Parker Caracci.
Ethridge and Nikhazy have combined to allow three earned runs across 15 innings pitched in the Oxford Regional thus far.
"I always knew he was a good arm," Ole Miss catcher Cooper Johnson said of Nikhazy. "But it used to be me having to guide him through it a little bit more, reminding him to make certain adjustments that clicked with him. Just helping him get through it any way possible. Now I look back at tonight's game and I just kind of was along for the ride. I was just kind of back there setting up. He was hitting his spots. I didn't really have to go down to my knees to block any balls. I mean, he was fantastic."
Ole Miss' offense surged early against Clemson left-handed ace Mat Clark. The Rebels scored three runs in the second inning, two off back-to-back solo home runs from first baseman Cole Zabowski and Johnson to start the inning. Designated hitter Knox Loposer drove in the third run with an RBI groundout, and the Rebels added a fourth run two innings later when right fielder Tim Elko scored on a wild pitch.
Clark, who entered the game with a 2.84 ERA, lasted 3.1 innings after Ole Miss tagged him for four earned runs on five hits and three walks.
"We knew Clark had tremendous command, especially with the fastball on both sides of the plate," Bianco said. "What we had to do was get some good swings off... One of the reasons he has a lot of success is because people get a lot of bad swings off. We needed to be patient with the ball up and get some good swings."
Entering as a pinch hitter in the eighth inning, freshman Kevin Graham hit Ole Miss' third solo home run of the game, and the Rebels' sixth home run in two games this week. Prior to the start of the Oxford Regional, Ole Miss had only hit five home runs in its previous 13 games. Friday and Saturday marked the first time all season that Rebels batters knocked three home runs in back-to-back games.
The Rebels will return to action at 8 p.m. on Sunday, needing a win to advance to Super Regionals for the first time since 2014. Ole Miss will either play a rematch against Clemson or Jacksonville State depending on the outcome of the early game prior.
Contact Nick Suss at 601-408-2674 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @nicksuss on Twitter.