photo credit: Joshua McCoy — Ole Miss Athletics
Story by SportsTalk Mississippi’s Ole Miss Beat Reporter Brian Scott Rippee
Beyond the raw ability and arm talent, Doug Nikhazy’s most useful tool is his ability to remain collected in the moment. He does not drown in the spotlight and no stage is too large.
Saturday’s eight innings of one-run, four-hit baseball was the most recent evidence of that. Nikhazy carried Ole Miss to a 6-1 win over Clemson to reach the championship game of the Oxford Regional.
Nikhazy said his 116-pitch gem flew by. The most important game of his team’s season was a bit of a blur. But he allowed himself to absorb and appreciate the environment in which he was operating, most notably when he handed the baseball to Parker Caracci in the ninth inning and jogged off the mound to a thunderous ovation from the 10,000 congregated at Swayze Field.
“It started to go by quickly once I got past those first tough few innings,” Nikhazy said. “After I got through those hard innings, I started to take it all in an enjoy it because that is a once in a lifetime experience with that crowd tonight.”
He struck out nine and walked three. He surrendered one hit through the first six innings. Nikhazy was as dominant and as he was composed. He’s remained steady all season. Behind home crowds and in daunting road environments alike. He stood tall amidst a crowd of 10,000 at Alex Box Stadium on a Saturday evening in which he threw 6.1 innings of one-run ball. He did the same in eight innings of three-hit, shutout baseball in a 1-0 win over Texas A&M last week that kept Ole Miss alive in the SEC Tournament and helped sparked a six-day run that changed the trajectory of the team’s season.
In a lot of ways, Nikhazy has singled-handedly changed the course of Ole Miss’ season. He is undoubtedly the most valuable piece on this team. Take Nikhazy out of the equation and the Rebels would’ve likely floundered in inept starting pitching. Ole Miss slogged through February and early March with insufficient starting pitching behind Will Ethridge. Zack Phillips struggled with command and mechanics, and Gunnar Hoglund learned some hard lessons by being too dependent on this fastball. Ole Miss had a total of one outing from a weekend started not named Ethridge last six innings until Nikhazy was inserted into the rotation on March 23.
“It stabilized us,” head coach Mike Bianco said. “Going into the season, he was one of about five candidates that could start on the weekend. One of the biggest things is that he was a freshman. We were not really sure where we were going to go. We went in a different direction with some other guys, but you could see it.”
The evidence was there. Nikhazy started the two most difficult non-conference games the team played. He went five innings against East Carolina and was on the wrong end of Pirate starter Jake Kuchmaner taking a no-hit bid to the ninth inning. He threw six innings of three-run ball a week later at Louisville in a game the Rebels lost in walk-off fashion.
“Some of those outings people forgot about,” Bianco said. “But he was really good against two national seeds.”
He threw 7.2 innings of two-hit, shutout baseball that day at Missouri in his weekend debut. His ascension has had few hiccups since. Nikhazy has pitched into the sixth inning in seven of 10 SEC starts and in nine of his 13 total starts on the season.
On this night, he peppered Clemson with fastballs and breaking balls, tunneling them effectively, making the two pitches difficult to decipher and shying away from hard contact.
“He did a really good job with that big breaking ball and the fastball,” Clemson first baseman Grayson Byrd said. “It was difficult for us to adjust to that.”
Ole Miss spotted Nikhazy a comfortable cushion with a three-run third inning highlighted back-to-back home runs from Cole Zabowski and Cooper Johnson. Tigers starter Mat Clark hung a breaking ball that Zabowski struck over the right-field wall and Johnson deposited a center-cut fastball into the seating in left-center field. Clark fit the profile of a pitcher that’s given this lineup trouble in the past: A softer-tossing left-hander that lives on the outer half of the plate.
The Rebels proceeded to spike Clark’s pitch count to 50 pitches after two innings and ousted him in the fourth. Bianco got three hits from the right-handers he inserted into the lineup to combat Clark; two from Tim Elko and one from Knox Loposer. Elko now has three hits in two games, a potentially significant development for the junior who has struggled mightily during the 2019 season. Elko entered the game 10-for-60 on the season with 16 strikeouts. A productive Elko gives Bianco flexibility in setting a lineup with regards to pitching matchups.
“Elko was terrific tonight,” Bianco said. “Tim is one of those guys where you could see it for two years. He just hasn’t done it much on the field. That could be a huge shot in the arm if we can get that big right-handed bat into the lineup.”
Ole Miss tacked on another in the fourth and the sixth. Kevin Graham hit a solo shot in the eighth, his 10th of the season. The six runs were more than enough for Nikhazy to operate with. Parker Caracci collected the last three outs in the ninth and Ole Miss is now one win away from heading to its first super regional since 2014. It will play the winner of Clemson and Jacksonville State at 8 P.M. on Sunday. The Rebels will have two shots at winning one game to advance to next week’s super regional that will likely be at Arkansas.
Nikhazy soaked in the scene as he sauntered towards the dugout. The crowd roared with approval. In a season in which time and time again Nikhazy has exceeded expectations and given his club a lift, he did it once more on the largest stage of his young career.
“I look back at tonight’s game and I was just along for the ride,” catcher Cooper Johnson said. “He was fantastic.”