Photo credit: Joshua McCoy– Ole Miss Athletics
OXFORD — Ole Miss entered the 2020 season as a club difficult to prognosticate.
An immensely talented recruiting class stepped on campus in the fall aiming to replace 70 percent of the hits, one rotation slot and a couple of bullpen pieces from a 2019 club that finished one win short of making the College World Series.
The newcomers answered the call in a 7-6, series-clinching win over No. 1 Louisville on Sunday. Ole Miss is 5-0 at home in series against top-ranked teams in the Mike Bianco era.
It began with four innings with 5.2 innings of four-run (three earned), six-hit baseball from true freshman right-hander Derek Diamond, who acquitted himself well despite the pedestrian line. Diamond struck out one and walked one in on 79 pitches. He fell victim to a dropped tag by Hayden Dunhurst in the first inning as Ole Miss let answered a Louisville base-running gaffe with an error. A run crossed the plate that gave the Cardinals an early advantage.
Diamond retired11 in a row after the unearned run crossed. He was tagged for two more in the fifth on back-to-back solo home runs from Levi Usher and Ben Bianco, both pitches misplaced in the upper portion of the strike zone.
Diamond escaped the inning with no more damage. He harkened back on a piece of advice Doug Nikhazy offered him moments before he took the mound. “Adversity is going to happen, don’t be surprised by it,” the sophomore left-hander told Diamond. That encouragement helped calm him throughout the start.
“A lot of questions I think were answered about Derek today,” head coach Mike Bianco said. “That is the guy we saw all fall and knew he would be. I am proud of him.”
Ole Miss sliced two off the lead in the fifth inning when Anthony Servideo blasted a Luke Smith fastball over the right-field bullpen. Servideo went 5-10 with two walks this weekend. The junior shortstop needed to take a leap in production at the plate in order for this team to be successful and is off to a strong start in doing just that.
“I feel really good at the plate right now,” Servideo said. “I am just trying to keep it going.”
Louisville added a run in the sixth and Ole Miss countered with the same in the bottom half of the inning. A four-run seventh inning swung the game in the Rebels’ favor, and it was fueled by the aforementioned newcomers. Peyton Chatagnier was plunked in a pinch-hit situation to begin the frame. Junior college transfer Ben Van Cleve roped a pinch-hit double down the left field line in the next at bat to put men at second and third with no one out. Laboring Lousiville reliever Tate Kuehner then walked Servideo to load the bases and was replaced by Ryan Hawks, who hit Justin Bench to tie the game at four.
Tyler Keenan and Cael Baker followed with RBI singles through the left side that plated a total of three runs and awarded the Rebels a 7-4 lead.
“A lot of really good at bats,” Bianco said. “Really quality and gritty at bats by our guys in that inning.”
True freshman Wes Burton relieved Diamond in the sixth inning and provided what may have been the most quality relief appearance of the weekend. Burton retired seven of the eight hitters he faced through scoreless seventh an eighth innings and was replaced by Max Cioffi after a leadoff walk to begin the ninth. Burton talked to himself on the mound, hyping himself up and willing his way through the outing. In a series in which Ole Miss struggled to record shutdown innings in the field after it plated a run, Burton mustered two crucial zeroes to put the team in position to salt it away in the ninth.
“It is a dark place we have to go to sometimes,” Burton said with a grin in reference to talking to himself. “Whatever I have to do to get it done.”
Cioffi let Burton’s runner score in the ninth plus one more, but the Rebels escaped on a strikeout-throw-out double play to cap a loud statement weekend to begin the 2020 campaign.
“I think we thought we could come in here and win a series this weekend,” Diamond said. “This just solidified it. We are legit. We are gonna be dogs. We are going to be tough to beat.”
The blend of contributions between the new faces and returning players netted an encouraging start for a group that has great potential, but also a lot of questions to answer. Diamond looked the part as the Sunday starter. Baker had a five-hit weekend and drove in five runs. Dunhurst flashed a strong arm behind the plate and Chatagnier was productive at second base.
The season is young as 53 games still remain, but the young players showed poise and the veterans were as advertised.
“What a great three games,” Bianco said. “Besides the wins, to watch guys perform, a couple of young guys on the mound, a few young guys at the plate, to watch them perform in this environment against a really good team, I am just proud of them.”
Ole Miss plays two midweek games before hosting Xavier next weekend. Greer Holston will start Tuesday against Arkansas State. First pitch is slate for 4 P.M.