After escaping Southern Miss in a winner-take-all affair in the Oxford Regional a week ago, the Ole Miss baseball team is headed out west to take on No. 5 seed Arizona in a quest to make it to Omaha.
The Rebels will need to beat Arizona twice in a best-of-three series if they want to make their first College World Series appearance since 2014.
“This is baseball, and anybody can beat anybody on a given day,” Rebels coach Mike Bianco said in his media availability session Thursday. “I know that’s coach-speak, but when you get to this point where there’s 16 teams and they’re all really good, what it teaches you is you have to play well or you lose.”
If anybody is going to keep the Rebels’ season alive, it’s Tim Elko. The senior slugger has been on an otherworldly run since tearing his ACL, batting .310 with seven home runs and 18 RBIs since his return on May 1. He was the Oxford Regional’s MVP after hitting two grand slams, including one in Ole Miss’ decisive 12-9 victory over the Golden Eagles.
The Wildcats boast the second most effective run-producing offense in the country with a .327 team batting average and a .931 OPS as a club. Arizona, vying for its first Omaha trip since 2016, is led by breakout freshman and Golden Spikes semifinalist Jacob Berry, who is hitting .357 with 15 homers and 64 RBI. While Ole Miss’ pitching performed admirably at times in the Oxford regional, it will have to reach another level to keep down Arizona’s bats in the dry air. Center fielder Donta Williams is a table-setter for Arizona, hitting .336 on the year with an on-base percentage of about .488. Additional power is provided by cleanup hitter Daniel Susac, who has clubbed 12 home runs to go along with his .338/.398/.599 slash line.
Ole Miss pitcher Derek Diamond will start Friday’s contest for the Rebels, keeping in line with the same trend Bianco deployed in the Regional last week. In his start against Southeast Missouri State, Diamond allowed one run (unearned) on two hits with five strikeouts and three walks in 4.1 innings of work.
“We wanted to make sure we looked at enough tape, looked at enough scouting reports, looked at the stats, tried to figure out the best matchup,” Bianco said. “Derek checks all the boxes.”
Doug Nikhazy, Ole Miss’ own Golden Spikes semifinalist, will likely earn the nod to start Game 2. Nikhazy delivered seven strong innings in Ole Miss’ Game 2 Regional win against Florida State last week.
“In the back of my mind, just didn’t want to throw Doug tomorrow,” Bianco said. “We’ve asked so much of him, and he’s always responded. Derek’s not necessarily on short rest. This time of year, it’s really how they feel. It’s not so much the rest or not rest, it’s trying to make sure they feel good. There’s times they have normal rest and we won’t throw a bullpen, we’ll throw short work, just to give them a little boost. I think they’re all ready to go.”
Meanwhile, Ole Miss will likely see Arizona starter Garrett Irvin (3.51 ERA with a 1.38 WHIP) and either Chase Silseth (5.53 ERA) or Chandler Murphy (3.63 ERA).