Ole Miss baseball coach Mike Bianco has decided to start young Derek Diamond, pictured above, Friday and hold ace Doug Nikhazy for Saturday.

OXFORD — We’ve heard much debate this week about whether Ole Miss should start All American Doug Nikhazy against Southeast Missouri (SEMO) in its Oxford Regional opener, or save Nikhazy to pitch against Southern Miss or Florida State.

Mike Bianco has decided to start young Derek Diamond Friday and hold Nikhazy for Saturday, which seems the right move to this observer. Your goal is to win the regional and this strategy gives the Rebels the best chance to do that. The key is to be 2-0 after Saturday. If you are 1-1, it doesn’t matter how you got there.

Rick Cleveland

Know this: Bianco would be criticized either way. That’s the nature of the beast.

What complicated this decision is the fact that SEMO – “probably the best 4-seed in the country,” Bianco said Thursday – has an ace of its own, senior left-hander Dylan Dodd, the Ohio Valley Conference pitcher of the year, also this week named a second-team All American by Collegiate Baseball.

Dodd can deal. He enters the regional with a 9-1 record, a 2.78 earned run average and 113 strikeouts in 90.2 innings. He has fanned eight or more in 12 of his 14 starts.

And I know what many will say: Yeah, but he pitches in the OVC, not the SEC. Well, Dodd struck out 10 over six innings against No. 1 ranked Arkansas at Fayetteville. He gave up only two runs and three hits and left with a lead over the Razorbacks who eventually rallied to win — as they so often do.

Mike Bianco

Said Bianco of SEMO Thursday in a pre-regional press conference: “They have an ace who would be the ace on almost any team.. … (Dodd) is a terrific left-hander with a dominant fast ball in the low 90s. He throws a curve, slider and change up, but the fastball is really good and beats a lot of people.”

Bianco added, “Fortunately, we have a guy like Derek who we believe can handle it.”

So this decision seems as much about Bianco’s confidence in Diamond as saving Nikhazy to pitch against a higher seed. It is also about matchups. For instance, Southern Miss, the 2-seed, has a batting lineup loaded with left-handed hitters and has struggled at times against lefties this season. The Golden Eagles might not have faced any lefty as dominant as Nikhazy has been this season.

Still, the main factor in Bianco’s decision is this: He believes his Rebels can beat SEMO and Dodd with Derek Diamond. So let’s examine. Diamond’s numbers will not blow you away. He recorded a 3-4 record this season with a 5.43 earned run average.

But Diamond’s pitching arsenal — his stuff — often will blow you and batters away. The 19-year-old Californian possesses a mid-90s fastball, and when he commands it, he can be overpowering. He pitched well against Vanderbilt in the SEC Tournament last week, allowing two runs and four hits over 5.1 innings while striking out eight. He pitched well at Georgia in his last regular season start. Diamond started fast this season when he was the winning pitcher against Texas, allowing one run on four hits over six innings, while striking out eight.

As his ERA would suggest, Diamond did falter at times later in the season, so much so that he was moved to the bullpen for a spell. He says he learned a lot about himself during that time and came out of it a better, more consistent pitcher.

“For me it’s been all about mindset,” he said Thursday. “I’m fired up. I‘m ready to go.”

Obviously, Bianco concurs.

“Derek is one of the best athletes on the team…” Bianco said. “He’s got tremendous stuff. He’s the total package. Sometimes we forget, he’s a freshman.”

Diamond is a freshman eligibility wise. He did pitch — and pitch well — last season before the pandemic ended the season. 

“I’ve learned so much more about pitching and myself this season than I did last year,” Diamond said. “I can’t begin to tell you how much I’ve learned this season.”

He doesn’t have to tell us. Friday, in the biggest game of this Rebel season and surely the biggest of his young career, he can show everyone.

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Rick Cleveland, a native of Hattiesburg and resident of Jackson, has been Mississippi Today’s sports columnist since 2016. A graduate of the University of Southern Mississippi with a bachelor’s in journalism, Rick has worked for the Monroe (La.) News Star World, Jackson Daily News and Clarion Ledger. He was sports editor of Hattiesburg American, executive director of the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame. His work as a syndicated columnist and celebrated sports writer has appeared in numerous magazines, periodicals and newspapers.
Rick has been recognized 13 times as Mississippi Sports Writer of the Year, and is recipient of multiple awards and honors for his reporting and writing.