Illinois and Clemson both decided earlier this week to hold their No. 1 starters for Saturday should either advance to face top-seeded Ole Miss.
But the Rebels opted to stay on schedule. They went with staff ace Will Ethridge in a 16-2 blowout of No. 4 seed Jacksonville State. And for two-seed Illinois, the strategy backfired, though top-end starter Andy Fisher was hardly to blame. Still, the Fighting Illini were bounced from the Oxford Regional by the Gamecocks, 7-5, in the early game on Saturday. Their season is over.
The No. 3 seed Tigers, however, had the setup they wanted. After easily dispatching Illinois in the opening round, they turned to Ole Miss with soft-tossing lefty Mat Clark opposing freshman Ole Miss LHP Doug Nikhazy. Clark was 9-2 with a team-low 2.84 ERA. The Tigers, as a team, hit .308 with a .503 OPS against southpaws in the regular season and ACC Tournament. They had three home runs in beating Illinois.
But Nikhazy is no typical lefty. He’s no typical Saturday starter, either.
If anything, Nikhazy, in his memorable debut season, has established himself as a co-ace with Ethridge, as he showed again in his latest brilliant performance. Nikhazy completely stymied the Tigers in a 6-1 Ole Miss win. He pumped in his low-90s fastball and devastating hook of a breaking ball for nine strikeouts, his most since his career-high 10 April 26 against Texas A&M.
Even more, he put Ole Miss (38-25) within one win of its first Super Regional appearance since 2014, the same year of its last trip to Omaha for the College World Series.
So much for Clemson saving its ace.
“The game kind of flew by for me,” said Nikhazy, who gave up one run on four hits with three walks. “It started to go by really quickly once I got past those first tough few innings trying to figure out their offense and how to approach them. But after I got through those hard innings, I just started to enjoy it and really take it in because that was a once-in-a-lifetime experience with that crowd.”
“Doug was fantastic for eight-plus innings against a really good offense,” Ole Miss head coach Mike Bianco said. “Not a lot of traffic on the bases during the outing. But the few times they did have runners, he did what he’s done all year long. After 60-something games, we’re still amazed that he continues to do what he does.”
Nikhazy struck out the side to set the tone in the bottom of the first inning. He added another in the third and two more in the fourth. He ended a perfect fifth with a swinging strikeout of Justin Hawkins.
He didn’t run into trouble until the seventh. Grayson Byrd doubled and Kyle Wilkie singled. But Nikhazy buckled down and got ahead of Bryar Hawkins 0-2. His next pitch resulted in a double play, and Jordan Greene fouled out near the first-base dugout. The threat was over.
“He did a really good job of hitting his spots,” Byrd said. “He was throwing that big breaking ball. His breaking ball has the same tunnel as his fastball; it was hard to adjust to that. I feel like everything he was throwing was tough to hit. He was in and out of the zone. He was just on. You tip your cap.”
“He was outstanding,” Clemson head coach Monte Lee said. “He was phenomenal. Pitched extremely well. The story of the game was their starting pitcher. We didn’t have a ton of opportunities. Nikhazy was very good. Offensively, we just couldn’t find the answer. He was phenomenal.”
Nikhazy sat Clemson (35-25) down in order in five of his 8.0 complete innings. Ole Miss has come to expect nothing less. The last time the Rebels had a pair of freshmen starters in their rotation was 2006 when they ran out Lance Lynn and Brett Bukvich. But Bukvich was a redshirt freshman. Nikhazy hands the ball off to fellow true freshman Gunnar Hoglund tomorrow. Ole Miss is in unprecedented waters for Bianco pitching rotations.
But little has followed precedent for Ole Miss baseball in 2019. The Rebels lost six of their final seven regular-season games before winning four of six over a six-day stretch in the SEC Tournament in Hoover last week. They reached the tournament championship game for the second time in as many years.
And they haven’t slowed down.
“You’ve heard about teams peaking at the right time and getting hot at the right time and you see that every year,” Bianco said. “Hopefully we’re one of those stories at the end that people say, ‘Hey, they played their best baseball at the end.’ This is a team that we all knew back in February we were talented. There’s times that we showed it, but we haven’t done it consistently enough throughout the year. But the last couple of weeks we’ve played really well. To do it in your own stadium is special. It was a really neat crowd tonight. There’s not many places in the country like this place, especially in June.”
They weren’t supposed to be here, in position to push forward in the postseason and their Omaha chase. Not so long ago, Ole Miss was fighting for its hosting life. A three-game sweep at the hands of in-state rival Mississippi State in mid-May seemed to all but lock the Rebels into a road path to the College World Series, and the road hasn’t been kind to Ole Miss in regionals. The Rebels are 8-14 all-time.
But here they are, in familiar territory. They were up 2-0 in the 2018 Oxford Regional, too. Then Bloody Monday happened and they were swept in a two-game doubleheader by Tennessee Tech — the No. 4 overall seed down and out.
“The biggest thing for us is to be where our feet are,” Ole Miss catcher Cooper Johnson said. “We don’t know who we’re going to play tomorrow. Looking in the past doesn’t really do you any good. We’re all feeling pretty good about the way we’re playing right now. We’re feeling pretty confident about ourselves, about each other, about the team as a whole. I think we’re right here, right now. Whoever we play and what time tomorrow, we’ll show up and we’ll do it and we’ll just keep playing the baseball we’re playing.”
Hoover changed everything. Nikhazy has changed everything, too. He was a midweek starter until Bianco slid him into the weekend rotation at Missouri at the end of March. All he’s done is gone at least 6.0 innings in five of his last seven outings. Three times he’s gone 7.0 or more. Over his last two appearances, Nikhazy has turned in 16.0 innings pitched, with a combined one run and seven hits surrendered and 11 strikeouts.
Saturday, then, was but the latest example of the laid-back, free-spirited, skate-board-riding, long-hair-flowing Floridian becoming something more than a No. 2 starter opposing teams strategize to line their top starter up against.
They set ‘em up, he keeps knocking ‘em down.
“Looking back at the beginning of the year, he was coming out of the bullpen,” Johnson said. “I always knew he was a good arm, but it used to be me having to guide him through it a little bit more — reminding him to make certain adjustments that click with him, just helping him get through it any way possible. Now, I look back at tonight’s game and I was just kind of along for the ride. I was back there setting up, he was hitting the spot, I really didn’t have to go down to my knees to block any balls. He was fantastic.”
In the stat book, Nikhazy’s night came to a close with a strikeout of Logan Davidson with two on in the bottom of the eighth inning. He pounded his fist as he walked off the field, looking to his raucous teammates collected in the Ole Miss dugout. Another capacity crowd rose to its feet and fist-pumped with him, the enthusiasm of the fans barely contained by the walls of Swayze Field.
He tried to finish what he started. He sprinted out to the mound to start the ninth. Fans roared for him once more. But neither ovation — the bottom of the eighth or the top of the ninth — compared to the last he received as he walked off the field following a free pass to Byrd on five pitches All in attendance rose for him, the walking embodiment of the next wave of great Ole Miss pitchers.
A team with championship aspirations has gotten a step closer. Nikhazy made sure of it, with an assist from Parker Caracci, who finished it off for him in retiring all three batters he faced. Nikhazy eclipsed 100 pitches for the sixth time this season. His 116 tied a career-high. He threw 107 in a 1-0 win over Texas A&M in the SEC Tournament, the day he out-dueled Aggie ace and expected early-round MLB Draft selection John Doxakis.
“He was throwing the curveball, fastball, every pitch he had for a strike,” Clemson outfielder Michael Green said. “It was hard to get a rhythm with them. It was hard to start anything up.”
Moment That Mattered: Nikhazy spun another memorable outing, but he was backed by a resurgent Ole Miss offense that continued its recent power surge with back-to-back home runs in the top of a three-run second inning. Cole Zabowski accounted for the first, leading off with a deep blast to right-center for his 11th of the season and first since May 3 at LSU. The junior Rebel first basemen is third on the team in home runs. Ole Miss launched three home runs in the win against Jacksonville State in the opening round of the regional Friday night, including one apiece by Tyler Keenan, the team leader, and Thomas Dillard. The Rebels have six through two games. They hit three home runs in back-to-back games for the first time all season. They were 11 for 34 (.324) as a team at the plate, compared to 4 for 30 (.133) for Jacksonville State. Three Rebels had at least two hits. Ryan Olenek was 2 for 4 with a walk. Tim Elko, who earned the start in right field, was 2 for 3 with a run scored and a walk. Ole Miss walked eight times.
You’ve Got to See This: Zabowski was followed in the inning by Johnson, who displayed his long-ball ability as well in sending a 3-2 Clark fastball — which clocked in at 86 miles per hour — to deep left-center. Ole Miss added its third run on a Knox Loposer ground out. Johnson entered the regional eight for his last 43 (.186) in 13 games. And Johnson, like Zabowski, hadn’t hit a home run scene May 3 at LSU. The junior was 2 for 5 with one run scored and one RBI, bringing his overall line through two regional games to 3 for 9, three runs and two RBI. Johnson was moved up to No. 5 in the order against Clark. Johnson hit .231 with .462 OPS against lefties in the regular season and SEC Tournament.
Did You Know? Ole Miss and Clemson have now met 14 times in history. With the win, Ole Miss drew even in the all-time series, 7-7. Prior to the NCAA Tournament, the Tigers had last visited Oxford in 1984. They left with a series sweep. The teams have met one other time in the postseason. Clemson took an 8-7 victory in the 1977 NCAA Southern Regional in Miami.
He Said It: “Not necessarily turning it up, but trying my best to continue to do what I’m doing and getting better every single day with my (bullpens) and my work ethic, most especially. As I got later into the season, I could focus mostly on what helps me pitch in between my outings and what’s going to make me better.” — Ole Miss pitcher Doug Nikhazy, on his elevated play in the postseason
“He dislocated (his finger), was out and the trainer put it back in. They taped it up and sent him back out there. Sometimes as a coach, you like that. He wanted to stay in. Showed some real toughness there.” — Ole Miss head coach Mike Bianco, on the status of Tim Elko, who injured his hand sliding back into first base early in the game
What’s Next: Ole Miss advances to take on the winner of Jacksonville State and Clemson Sunday at 8 p.m. CT on ESPN3. The Gamecocks and Tigers will play at 2 p.m. CT. Should the Rebels win, they would host a Super Regional or travel to Arkansas, depending on whether the Razorbacks get out of the Fayetteville Regional. The Oxford and Fayetteville Regionals are paired. Ole Miss is the No. 12 overall seed in the NCAA Tournament. Arkansas is No. 5 and 2-0 in its regional. Ole Miss was 3-2 against the Razorbacks this season. A final, deciding Oxford Regional game, if necessary, is set for Monday at 6 p.m. CT. Ole Miss will throw Hoglund, the freshman RHP. Hoglund is 2-2 on the season with a 4.90 ERA, and he’s gone at least 6.0 innings in each of his last two starts. He turned in a quality start in his last outing at Swayze Field — a 3-2 Ole Miss win over Texas A&M April 27. Hoglund pitched 6.0 innings and allowed only two runs on five hits with no walks and three strikeouts to finish off an Ole Miss sweep.