Doug Nikhazy reacts to one of his 16 strikeouts in a masterful pitching performance for Ole Miss Saturday night. (Ole Miss Athletics)

OXFORD — In a game dripping with drama – until, and even after the last out – Ole Miss defeated Florida State 4-3 Saturday night to take a huge step toward the championship of the Oxford regional.

It wasn’t over until it was over and then, well, it wasn’t over. Umpires needed a lengthy review of a bang-bang play at first base for the last out to go into the record book. The game had it all: marvelous defensive plays (mostly by Ole Miss), long home runs (by Florida State) and uncommonly good pitching.

Rick Cleveland

Mostly, it had Ole Miss pitchers Doug Nikhazy and then Taylor Broadway. Nikhazy, the Rebels’ All-American left-hander, was heroic, striking out 16 Seminoles over seven innings before handing over a 4-3 lead to closer Broadway, who retired six straight Seminoles, including the last three on strikeouts.

So Ole Miss pitching combined for 19 strikeouts of the free-swinging, feast-or-famine Seminoles who take all-or-nothing swings in each at bat. 

Ole Miss now waits to see who wins Sunday’s 1 p.m. rematch of Florida State and Southern Miss. The Rebels will play the winner at 6 p.m. Should Ole Miss lose that one, a winner-take-all championship game will be played Monday at 6 p.m.

Whatever happens Sunday and Monday, it will be difficult to match Saturday night’s suspense. With a packed house of 10,830 often standing, shouting and clapping in unison, both Nikhazy and then Broadway delivered clutch pitch after clutch pitch under high pressure.

Nikhazy threw 119 pitches, but seemed as strong after seven innings as he had in the first.

“When the game is on the line, he can take it to another gear,” coach Mike Bianco said of Nikhazy. “Some pitchers hit a wall at 90 to 95 pitches, but with the game on the line, Doug can always reach back and get a little extra.”

Someone asked Bianco if it might have been Nikhazy’s best performance as a Rebel. Bianco smiled. “I’m not going to go out on that line because he has pitched a ton of great games,” he said. “But we needed every bit of it tonight.”

Nikhazy, who pitches with his emotions on his sleeve, often was ready to pitch before the batter even stepped into the box. For the most part, he had the Seminoles off kilter. If a batter was looking for a fastball, he got a nasty curve. If the batter looked for curve, he got a 90 mph fastball in on his hands. He was masterful.

Nikhazy made only two mistakes, both in the fifth inning. Logan Lacey deposited the first deep into the left field bleachers for a solo home run. Two batters later, Isaiah Perry ripped a two-run homer over the left centerfield fence.

“It was a kick in the gut,” Bianco said.

But the Rebels responded two innings later, taking advantage of a Florida State throwing error to score two and take the 4-3 lead. You’d never guess who hit the ball that led to the error. Oh, you did: Tim Elko.

Really, when you get right down to it, that was the difference. Florida State pitched well, too. Both teams managed only four hits. But Ole Miss played better defense. Three of the four Rebels runs were the result of three FSU errors and were unearned. 

Nikhazy and Broadway had a little help from their friends. Freshman shortstop Jacob Gonzalez, the latest in a long line of amazing Rebel shortstops, made one sensational play in the eighth inning when he charged in to barehand a ball that went off Broadway’s leg, scooped the ball and threw in one motion to nail the diving runner at first. Gonzalez also scored two of the four Rebel runs.

“What an incredible college baseball game,” Bianco said. “It was one of those games where it comes down to a couple of plays and we made a couple more plays than them.”

They did. And the Rebels also had Nikhazy and Broadway, who were a one-two punch FSU could not overcome.

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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.