Ole Miss baseball officially returns to Swayze field on Friday, and the stable of pitchers includes several experienced underclassmen and high-profile prospects from the No. 2 recruiting class in the country.
The Rebels will feature several impressive pitchers this spring, but the schedule will force them to play some of their best baseball immediately.
Preseason All-American Doug Nikhazy will return to the mound at Swayze after a record-breaking 2019 season. The sophomore set the Ole Miss freshman strikeout record with 86 last season, receiving freshman All-American and All-SEC honors.
The statistics were impressive, but Nikhzay has the attitude to match, making him the prime candidate to take over Friday’s starting position. Nikhazy has a shutdown mentality, and when he’s hitting his spots, it is hard to find a lineup that can get the best of him.
Head coach Mike Bianco confirmed that Nikhazy would not face suspension after he was charged with a DUI in Oxford last Monday, so he will start the season against a strong Louisville lineup. Bianco said Nikhazy’s punishment would be severe and handled privately.
Gunnar Hoglund, who made 16 starts last season to settle into the Sunday starter role, will take the mound on Saturday. Hoglund went 3-3 with a 5.29 in 68.0 innings in 2019.
The sophomore had an up-and-down season last year and will need to make a jump to get the Rebels through swing games throughout the season. Nikhazy’s heroics in that Saturday role last year were crucial; a breakout year from the righthander would help mightily this spring.
The young weekend rotation will be freshman righthander Derek Diamond. The Ramona, California, native was drafted by the Arizona Diamondbacks in the 40th round of the 2019 MLB draft. Diamond will pair slider with a fastball in the low 90s.
Bianco said the first-year starter set himself apart during camp and gained enough trust to take the Sunday position.
“Derek won the role because I think from start to finish — from September to last weekend — he’s probably the best performer of all the guys,” he said. “I think he gives us the best opportunity to win on Sunday. He looks the part (and) looks confident.
“That’s one of the challenges for the young kids. ‘Are you ready for this? Not just physically, but mentally do you believe you belong?’ I think he believes he belongs,” Bianco added.
Veteran relievers Austin Miller and Taylor Broadway will be in the bullpen for the Rebels while Max Cioffi and Greer Holston are expected to play major roles this season. Wes Burton also had an impressive spring.
The Ole Miss arms will throw to freshman Hayden Dunhurst. The 5-foot-11 catcher out of Carriere has impressed from the fall to spring practices with his power hitting and arm from behind the plate.
“He’s as good as any freshman catcher we’ve had right now,” Bianco said. “That’s in all the phases. He’s shown a great arm and great release this fall where he threw out a lot of baserunners.”
Dunhurst said he was not discouraged when he fell in the MLB draft before coming to Oxford.
“You can’t tell me that (you’re) not getting drafted, and you’re like, ‘Oh crap. Now I’ve got to go to Ole Miss to play baseball,’” Dunhurst said. “I mean, I had the two best options to go to.”
The rotation will face a tough test right away with No. 1 Louisville coming to town for the opening weekend. The series will start at 4 p.m on Friday.