HOOVER — Doug Nikhazy tried to prevent himself from thinking about what his counterpart was doing.
Texas A&M’s John Doxakis, one of the finest left-handed arms in college baseball and a potential first round pick in next month’s MLB Draft, was tearing through the Ole Miss lineup. Doxakis fanned 10 hitters and did not allow a hit in the eight innings he occupied the mound. With both offenses entangled in ineptitude, Nikhazy’s margin for error was slim and thinking about it didn’t help. The true freshman matched Doxakis with eight shutout innings of his own and the Rebels eventually cracked Doxakis’ successor in a 1-0 win over the Aggies to remain alive in the SEC Tournament.
“It wasn’t necessarily difficult today,” Nikhazy said. “It was just having a healthy mix of pitches. I don’t think I really ever found it out there on the mound. I don’t think I ever had complete control of all my pitches. But I worked through it and my defense helped behind me. Doxakis is a tremendous pitcher. I just tried to keep my mind off and know the offense would pull through.”
Head coach Mike Bianco called Nikhazy a fighter. Nikhazy speaks more like a perfectionist. But, to his point, the swing-and-miss stuff wasn’t at an optimal level. He struck out two and walked four. But Nikhazy’s ability to turn in productive outings despite it all is what prompts Bianco to use such a term when describing his freshman left-hander. Nikhazy scattered three hits. He worked out of a corners, one-out jam in the fourth and stranded five base runners on the day. Nikhazy threw 72 strikes and 107 total pitches.
“I don’t want to say it is a surprise because I think I don’t think that is fair,” Bianco said. “But I think you just get to that level of expectations where you sometimes have to pinch yourself and say ‘He is a freshman.’ The team has so much confidence when he has the ball out there.
“He is one of those guys who just doesn’t have bad innings. Some guys lose it quickly. All of a sudden you look up and think it was a good game up until that point. That doesn’t really happen to Doug.”
The game featured just two hits through seven innings. An Ole Miss offense that has scored just five runs in three games in Hoover and is batting .190 as a team, was unable to generate any sort of success. Doxakis granted the Rebels five base runners in the form of four walks and a hit batter. Ole Miss left all five on base. Texas A&M head coach Brad Childress stared at a difficult decision as the game entered the ninth inning. He elected to pull Doxakis after eight no-hit innings in favor of right-handed reliever Bryce Miller. Doxakis had thrown 99 pitches. Texas A&M is comfortably projected to host a regional and with Doxakis’ services needed again in eight days, chasing a no hitter was not on the forefront of Childress’ mind.
Dillard greeted Miller with a base hit to left field in a 1-2 count for the team’s first hit of the game. Dillard stole second base. It appeared as if the Rebels may strand their sixth base runner of the game after Grae Kessinger popped out on a failed bunt attempt and Tyler Keenan grounded out to third base. But Cole Zabowski laced an elevated breaking ball down the right field line to plate Dillard. Zabowski knew a breaking ball was likely coming early in the count. After watching a 1-0 pitch go by, he capitalized on a mistake.
“After watching Keenan’s at bat, he was throwing a lot of breaking balls. I was just trying to see it up in the zone and hit the ball where it was pitch,” Zabowski said.
The RBI double created a scenario that Bianco and Ole Miss needed to see unfold, for better or for worse. Struggling closer Parker Caracci was getting loose in the bullpen and Zabowski’s double created an environment that Caracci has thrived in for the better part of a year-and-a-half but has faltered in during the last three weeks of the season. Could the All-American closer preserve a 1-0 lead and regain prior form? There was no doubt in Bianco’s mind that he wanted the baseball.
“As strong as your are and as great of a competitor as he is, there are times where you get knocked around,” Bianco said. “The one thing he is a fighter. He always wants the ball. There are some guys that don’t and those are guys you don’t want out there at the end of the game. That is why Parker continue to get the ball. He wants the ball.”
Caracci stranded a leadoff double with a strikeout. He offered Jonathan Ducoff an elevated 2-2 fastball and put it past him to preserve the win. Despite Caracci’s struggles, Bianco was going to him in this situation no matter what. For better or for worse, he knows this team cannot afford to have Caracci be an on-looker. Caracci has to pitch.
“I do not believe we can win in the postseason without Parker Caracci,” Bianco said. “I don’t believe we can do that. I think most people on our team believe that. He has won so many big games. He’s been in that moment more times than most kids in this conference.”
The ninth inning encapsulated the opportunity this tournament offered the Rebels. Ole Miss is likely a two seed in a regional unless it is still playing baseball in Hoover on Sunday. It isn’t moving down to a three seed and a shift upwards towards the hosting conversation is likely two more wins away. But this week offered a chance for this team to regain confidence, figure out some of the issues that have plagued a struggling bullpen and feel better equipped for the postseason. The offense is still not producing, but the bullpen has generated better results. It preserved a one-run lead twice in three days and has only yielded one run on one hit in 5.1 innings this week.
Nikhazy let out a yell after he retired his final batter in the eighth to stranded men at the corners and keep a scoreless tie. It was his brilliance against one of the SEC’s best pitchers that delivered this win and the pitching staff as a whole has carried a slumbering offense to two wins. The best version of this Ole Miss team has come out most frequently when Nikhazy has the baseball.
“This is a once in a lifetime experience for me,” Nikhazy said. “It has been really awesome.”
PHOTO CREDIT: JOSHUA MCCOY — OLE MISS ATHLETICS