Doug Nikhazy’s stuff speaks for itself.
The freshman lefty has a fastball in the low 90s with good life, two different breaking balls and a changeup. He can throw all four for strikes no matter the count. These tools have helped Nikhazy stabilize the second leg of Ole Miss’ weekend rotation as Zack Phillips faltered in the first five weeks of the season.
Nikhazy went 7.2 innings of two-hit, shutout baseball at Missouri to earn a win in his first SEC start and pieced together 5.2 innings last week at Arkansas in a game the Rebels would eventually win. In four starts this season, he’s gone at least five innings each time and could’ve been extended longer in his first career start against East Carolina, an outing that saw him go five innings total, his shortest of the four.
He’s provided length, which is something Ole Miss was in dire need for from its starting pitchers not named Will Ethridge.
“The biggest key has been keeping my fastball down in the zone,” Nikhazy said. “Obviously, making the transition from high school to college, guys are going to hit your mistakes more often. Keeping the fastball down and trusting the defense behind me has been key.”
Arm talent and command aside, the largest component to Nikhazy’s successful transition to a weekend starter in his first college season is the composure he maintains, a trait that Mike Bianco thinks is perhaps more advanced than what you see with a lot of freshmen.
“I think we knew that right away when we watched the intrasquad games in the fall,” Bianco said. “You watch him pitch and the thing everyone talks about is the competitiveness. It depends on how you define competitiveness, but a lot of that would be similar to composure. How you are in big moments under pressure. It might be synonymous. I think he has shown that since he has gotten on campus.”
The two non-conference games Nikhazy started are as adequate a test for SEC baseball as the schedule would’ve allowed. He surrendered three runs on one swing in five innings against a ranked East Carolina club and went six innings at Louisville, giving up three runs on five hits with five strikeouts and a walk. He didn’t factor in the decision in a loss to the Cardinals and deserved a better fate than the loss he was issued against East Carolina. Pirate starter Jake Kuchmaner taking a no-hitter to the ninth inning in that contest did not help Nikhazy’s case.
But if you examine each of those starts, the composure that’s lifted Nikhazy to success has beamed through adverse circumstances. He surrendered a three-run home run in the fourth inning against ECU, starting the inning by being tagged for a double and a single before the blast by Spencer Brickhouse. Nikhazy responded by retiring the next three batters to escape the inning and then put up a zero in the fifth.
At Louisville, a similar occurrence unfolded. In the first inning, he gave up a leadoff single followed by Tyler Fitzgerald tagging him for a towering two-run shot. Nikhazy was in a 2-0 hole before recording an out. He settled in and proceeded to throw five innings of one-run ball, keeping Ole Miss in the game.
In each of those contests, Nikhazy’s day was close to going off the rails. But he was able to calm himself and scrape together a productive outing each time.
“Coach Bianco preaches being able to make a pitch and get off the field,” Nikhazy said. “I have been able to do that lately, grounding into double plays, big strikeouts. That is they key: not necessarily dominating the whole game, but making those pitches to get off the field.”
Nikhazy is a smart kid. He was on the debate team at West Orange High in Windmere, Fla. and coordinated a marathon for charity that raised over $80,000. He keeps keeps an even-keeled demeanor in conversation and speaks with a poise beyond his years. Thus far, he has used that to pitch within himself even when circumstances become dire.
That’s not to downplay his stuff. He features a looping curveball and a sharp slider that are incredibly difficult for hitters to anticipate or decipher between, along with a well-located fastball and a changeup. But the sense of calmness he’s able to maintain is, at times, every bit as helpful as his four-pitch mix.
It is no easy task to conquer, particularly as a freshman. Gunnar Hoglund is evidence of that. The 2018 first-round pick of the Pittsburgh Pirates has scuffled a bit in the Sunday role to begin his college career. He’s too fastball-reliant at times and has not given the Rebels the length needed to win games on Sunday. For the first time all season, Mike Bianco did not name a Sunday starter heading into the series against Florida. He cited it could still end up being Hoglund, but Bianco I now weighing other options.
“We need a little more length out of that spot,” Bianco said. “It has kind of been up-and-down. Gunnar has had some good starts and some not so good. He really wasn’t bad last Sunday. He came out of the game with no runs. I just though with a rested bullpen, we needed to make a move. It is still possible he could start. We are just going to get through the first couple of games and then make a move.”
Tyler Myers and Houston Roth are the two most likely candidates. Myers threw four shutout innings in the Sunday win at Arkansas and has not allowed a run over his three outings that has spanned 10 total innings. His availability would obviously depend on whether he is needed out of the bullpen in the first two games. Unlike Myers, Roth has experience starting games, though that may not matter. Myers has been tremendous for Ole Miss out of the pen. He’s shown the ability to eat innings and his stuff is more than sufficient in high-leverage situations.
Who Ole Miss starts on Sunday remains to be seen, but feels like far less pressing issue given the formidable one-two punch the Rebels have created with Nikhazy and Ethridge. Without the freshman lefty, Ole Miss would have a slew of issues on its hands and likely be in a far worse place than 5-4 in the SEC a third of the way in.