Tyler Keenan gazed at his work as he jogged towards first base shortly after pummeling a hanging slider offered by Texas A&M reliever Bryce Miller. The baseball saled over the wall in left-center field for a three-run shot, morphing what was once a pitcher’s duel into a rout.
Keenan went 2-for-3 with a walk. He’s implemented a change in his swing over the last week or so, opening his stance and making sure his front foot is set quicker as he enters his swing. Keenan is 8 for his last 15 with three multi-hit games in his last four contests.
“I am seeing the ball a lot better,” Keenan said. “it has allowed me to get my swing off better.”
Ole Miss beat Texas A&M, 13-2, masking what was a fairly dominant performance from Aggie starter Aca Lacy, who struck out 11 and gave up three runs on five hits in 5.1 innings. The Rebels spiked Lacy’s pitch count to 108 by the sixth, ejecting him from the game and then proceeded to pummel the Aggies’ bullpen for a pair of six spots in the sixth and seventh innings, turning what was a 2-1 Texas A&M lead entering the sixth into a farce.
“We knew their pitcher was going to be good,” Keenan said. “He was down in the zone and everything was hard. We knew we had to take advantage of everything. Early in the game, we didn’t do that.”
The Rebels began the game 0-for-5 with runners in scoring position, making Lacy twist but unable to break him. The offense received backing amidst the missed opportunities with seven innings of two-run ball from Doug Nikhazy who struck out a career high 10 hitters, punishing the Aggies with a sharp slider and mixing in a changeup to rupture any sort of rhythm A&M tried to find at the plate.
“Being able to weather the blows,” Nikhazy said. “That is the thing about being a starter in the SEC, weathering the blows and knowing the offense will come through.”
Nikhazy has now bested Auburn’s Tanner Burns and Lacy in back-to-back weeks, two of the more dominant pitchers in the Southeastern Conference. As a true freshman, Nikhazy speaks with a calmness and confidence of a guy who has weathered more storms than he’s actually experienced in his short college career. He has stabilized Ole Miss’ rotation and formed the back end of a formidable one-two punch behind Will Ethridge. Ole Miss is a different team with Nikhazy’s services.
“That is one of the reasons Doug is different. He doesn’t look at it that way,” head coach Mike Bianco said. “He just goes out and competes and tries to pitch. It doesn’t matter if it is a midweek game and he is coming out of the bullpen or he is starting against a top five team in the country. I wish all the young guys could maybe have that mindset. Keep it in perspective and play the game.”
Lacy’s exit in the sixth was a byproduct of Ole Miss’ approach and served as a proverbial green light for the offense. One through four in the lineup was 9-for-17 with 7 RBI. Ryan Olenek and Grae Kessinger each had three hits, including back-to-back singles in the six that set the table for Keenan’s blast. Thomas Dillard added a 2-RBI single in the seventh.
Four Aggie errors sprinkled in helped the Rebels’ cause. Ole Miss is now 12-8 in league play and, in a season that’s felt like a struggle, sits 1.5 games out of first place in the SEC. Olenek has been on a couple of teams in his career that have found its footing in the back half of the season. He sense a similar phenomenon brewing amongst a club that’s been plagued with inconsistency for three months.
“It’s about playing hard every single game. Sometimes baseball gets you and you have bad luck,” Olenek said. “It just feels like this team is starting to figure it out.”
Olenek has battled a left hip injury for the last three weeks. He is not 100 percent. He can feel it with every step he takes he says, but is getting healthier by the day.
“You can tell when he is moving down the base paths,” Bianco said. “He is having good 90s to first base. I think it bother him certainly, but not like it was.”
Gunnar Hoglund will starter for Ole Miss in the series finale as the Rebels attempt to complete a sweep. One of the more pressing issues facing this club is getting little to no length from its third starter in the weekend rotation. It is hardly an audition for Hoglund, who has primarily been the third starter for three months. Zack Phillips has pitched well in the midweek and if not for an 86 pitch outing on Tuesday against Mississippi State on a short week, Phillips may have gotten the nod. With a rested Austin Miller and Tyler Myers in the bullpen, Hoglund’s leash will be short.
This night, however, was about Nikhazy and the offense hammering A&M’s bullpen. The freshman lefty is budding into a high-caliber starter. Nikhazy walked a batter to begin the eighth and handed the baseball to Taylor Broadway. The game was out of hand and Nikhazy’s work was complete. He exited to an ovation from the crowd and gazed around to take it in.
“I was trying to stay serious the whole time, and I’m not a very serious guy,” he said. “When I came off the mound, I couldn’t help but smile, run in there and say hi to everyone and be a human again.”
Photo credit: Petre Thomas – Ole Miss Athletics