BATON ROUGE — Doug Nikhazy stepped off the rubber, pausing for a moment to collect his thoughts in an effort to remain unfazed by the environment around him.
He’d just hit Drew Bianco to load the bases with two outs in the fourth inning, nursing a newly minted 4-0 lead after a Kevin Graham home run in the top half of the frame.
“This is the best in the country in terms of going into a hostile environment,” Nikhazy said. “I try to keep the blinders on but (the crowd) did a good job of knocking them away.”
Nikhazy took a breath and slipped out of the jam by inducing a Cade Belso pop out to shortstop Grae Kessinger.
The freshman left-hander’s performance in Ole Miss’ 5-1 win over LSU to even the series was indicative of the composure and confidence the freshman exudes. Nikhazy isn’t rattled by crowds or opposing lineups. He doesn’t overpower hitters with velocity. He’s tactical with his work, carefully crafting each pitch from an arsenal that is four deep and includes a breaking ball that eluded him for pieces of this game, a good slider and a changeup behind a low 90s fastball.
“What you saw today is vintage Nikhazy,” head coach Mike Bianco said. “Very gutsy. Very tough. He’s always going to make that pitch when he needs to.”
Nikhazy’s 6.1 innings of one-run ball was enough to preserve an early lead supplied to him on a pair of home runs and harbored a stress free environment for Austin Miller and Parker Caracci to collect the final eight outs.
“Nothing fazes Doug,” Graham said. “I love playing behind Doug. He is going to compete for you every time.”
Nikhazy was admittedly not as sharp as he is accustomed to and could sense it in the bullpen before the game. He lost command of his curveball at times and his fastball location was spotty. But he scattered five hits, struck out four and walked one. The fourth inning was most severe bind he worked through on the evening.
“I came back into the dugout and did a little mental assessment,” Nikhazy said. “I told myself I wasn’t emptying the bucket. I went back out on the mound with a different mentality like it was the first inning and emptied the bucket.”
Nikhazy’s self-evaluation is far from uncommon. He’s open with his head coach and teammates about what he’s thinking and what he sees, even noting how much adrenaline is coursing through his veins at a particular moment.
“He’s so honest,” Bianco said. “He came in after the fifth or the sixth and said ‘I am so adrenalized.’ Most guys feel that, but would never admit it. He’s a guy that enjoys it and it shows.”
Thomas Dillard spotted Nikhazy an early cushion with a solo home run off of LSU starter Eric Walker in the second inning. It was Dillard’s first home run since March 24 at Missouri. Graham supplemented that with a towering three-run home run in the fourth inning to make it a 4-0 game. Walker misplaced an 0-2 fastball that drifted over the inner half and Graham pummeled it.
“Usually on 0-2 they try to bury something,” Graham said. “He gave me a fastball and it came pretty much middle-in.”
LSU’s lone run in the fifth came on a two-out double from Zach Watson that scored on an RBI single from Antoine Duplantis. Miller relieved Nikhazy in the seventh. He and Caracci allowed just one base runner over the final 2.2 innings.
With the win, Ole Miss will have an opportunity to secure its first series win in Baton Rouge since 1982. It will need a win on Sunday to do so. Bianco made his team aware of the drought in the postgame meeting. They are not running from that fact but the team’s focus does not revolve around it either. Gunnar Hoglund will start for the Rebels on their quest to end the streak.
“It is on everyone’s radar,” Nikhazy said. “We aren’t nervous. We are going to go out and attack tomorrow.”