Diamond Rebs take series from Georgia in Athens, turn attention to SEC Tournament
ATHENS Ga. – Last week, No. 11 Ole Miss (38-17, SEC 18-12) packed its bags and headed to Athens where the Rebs faced Georgia (30-23, SEC 13-17). Along with their equipment, Ole Miss carried its hopes of securing a series victory that would lock up a top-16 seed and secure Swayze Field as a host site for Regionals in postseason play.
After winning two of three against then-No. 2 Vanderbilt in Oxford last weekend, the NCAA selection committee likely wanted to see if the Rebels could recover from the loss of starting pitcher Gunnar Hoglund. The Diamond Rebs did not disappoint as they mustered every bit of strength and talent to execute head coach Mike Bianco’s strategy to win the series over the Bulldogs.
Game One Summary: Ole Miss 2, Georgia 0
Rebel lefty Doug Nikhazy (8-2, 2.12 ERA) continued where he left off last week when he defeated the future first-round pick Kumar Rocker of Vanderbilt. On Thursday in Athens, Doug was a bulldozer on the mound as he shut out the Bulldogs and only allowed four hits in 7.0 innings of work.
Nikhazy had his nasty breaking ball working for him as he struck out 13 Georgia batters and only walked two in the 24 batters he faced.
The Rebels’ offense came alive when Justin Bench hit an RBI-single that moved Graham to second and scored T.J. McCants. Graham and McCants would combine again for the final score of the game in the sixth when Graham hit a sacrifice fly to left field that brought in the speedy McCants from third.
Taylor Broadway would enter the game in the eighth. Of the seven batters he faced, Broadway allowed only one hit and used his 94 mph fastball with an excellent mix of his breaking ball to notch his first save of the weekend in front of a crowd of 1,577.
Game Two Summary: Ole Miss 8, Georgia 5 (11 innings)
On Friday, 2,221 fans saw Derek Diamond (3-4, 5.61 ERA) take the mound and pitch a solid 4.1 innings for the Red and Blue.
Diamond allowed two singles and a double that would score UGA’s third baseman Garrett Blaylock, second baseman Josh McCallister, and designated hitter Corey Collins in the second and third innings.
But in the top of the fourth, the Rebels’ bats would come to life as Jacob Gonzalez would record the Rebs’ first dinger of the night.
Jackson Kimbrell would take over for Diamond on the mound in the bottom of the fifth. The Georgia center fielder knocked a two-RBI single to left that scored a run, charged to Diamond, in left fielder Brandon Jernigan and an earned run in right fielder Chaney Rogers.
The Rebs would have to wait until the eighth inning to launch their comeback — and what a comeback it was. After Gonzalez and Bench reached base, Kevin Graham went yard for a three-run homer that disappeared into to the trees just beyond the outfield fence.
Then, designated hitter Tim Elko walked up to the dish and on a 1-1 count launched a rocket into orbit to tie the score at 5-5.
The score remained tied until the top of the eleventh inning when McCants singled to left after an extended at-bat and then advanced to second on an errant throw that plated Hayden Dunhurst. Gonzalez’ single to left drove in T.J. McCants, and Kevin Graham’s single to left drove in Bench.
Brandon Johnson would earn his first career win as a Rebel by allowing only two hits and one walk, striking out three Bulldogs in 2.2 innings.
End 8 | FROZEN! Brandon Johnson gets us out of the jam with a strikeout and a groundout. 🥶🥶
Ole Miss 5, UGA 5 pic.twitter.com/4xFwzn0my7
— Ole Miss Baseball (@OleMissBSB) May 22, 2021
Closer Taylor Broadway would enter in the bottom of the eleventh and shut the Dawgs down to preserve the 8-5 win.
Game Three Summary: Ole Miss 2, Georgia 13
Sunday brought 2,047 fans to Foley Field, and with them came a renewed focus from the Georgia team.
The Diamond Rebs would score first off of a Kevin Graham single to left that plated Justin Bench.
UGA designated hitter Colllins came out and hit a double to right field that scored center fielder Ben Anderson. Drew McDaniel allowed a single from Garrett Blaylock that would score Josh McCallister to bring the score to 2-1 headed into the top of the second.
On an 0-1 count, Peyton Chatagnier jacked a homer over the left field fence, but, unfortunately for the Rebels, that would be the final score of Saturday’s game as the Bulldogs rolled to a 13-2 victory.
Doug Nikhazy is running neck-and-neck with Vandy’s Jack Leiter and Kumar Rocker in the SEC pitching elite. Doug owns an identical ERA to Leiter as we head into the SEC Conference tournament. A stat of note between these two pitchers is that Nikhazy has a 4.12 strikeout-to-walk ratio while Leiter’s is 3.74.
Doug and catcher Hayden Dunhurst communicate more than the vast majority of pitchers/catchers in Division 1 baseball. They trust each other to make the right pitch in the proper location, and that communication could be crucial throughout the Rebels’ stay in Hoover and in the postseason.
Two additional players to watch as we head to the SEC tourney include Brandon Johnson and Jackson Kimbrell. Johnson’s velocity has been consistent at 96 mph, and if Brandon can locate the breaking ball and keep his velocity up the way he did in Athens on Saturday, he can bolster this bullpen and can help take the Rebels deep into postseason play. Johnson is a fiery pitcher who can excite his teammates and help the offense respond by backing his efforts.
Jackson Kimbrell has a presence on the mound that exudes confidence. He is able to hit his spots and keep his pitches in the bottom of the zone, although he can pitch to all quadrants. He has played very well over the past two SEC series and will be counted on heavily if the Rebs are to make a run in Hoover and in the postseason.
Last but not least, head coach Bianco has found a solid offensive lineup by placing T.J. McCants in the lead-off role. The freshman can draw walks as well as hit for power. His speed and baseball IQ are off-the-charts, and I believe he will continue to flourish in the leadoff position.
Having Tim Elko return to the lineup at the clean-up position allows Graham to go back to a more natural position in the three-hole. Chatagnier and Dunhurst moving to the five and six-hole spots should also pay off well for the Rebels. Look for them to deliver when Ole Miss needs it most.
The SEC Championship begins Tuesday, and Ole Miss draws Auburn in what will be a difficult matchup in a single-elimination game.
Eighteen wins in the SEC should be plenty to secure an NCAA Regional at Swayze Field next week, but the Rebels must not rest on their laurels. In fact, a loss to Auburn — with an RPI of 96 — might not be looked upon favorably by the NCAA committee.
Steven Willis and I will discuss things to watch in our “SEC Tournament Today” videocast. Look for it on your podcatchers, the “Swayzie Crazies” group on Facebook, or the Positively Ole Miss Twitter feed. The Auburn Game will be on the SECN 30 minutes following the conclusion of the LSU vs. UGA matchup that starts at 4:30 pm Tuesday.