Mat Clark had been Clemson's most reliable pitcher all season.
When the Tigers needed a win, Clemson head coach Monte Lee never hesitated handing the ball to the Hilton Head native. Last week, with the Tigers' postseason hopes on the line against Louisville in the ACC Tournament, Clark baffled the Cardinals' hitters, giving up just one hit in a 7-1 victory.
On Sunday, facing Mississippi with a spot in the Oxford Regional championship game within reach, Clark couldn’t capture the form that had made him so unhittable just a few short days ago.
That wasn’t the case for Mississippi freshman Doug Nikhazy, who was in total command of all of his pitches from the beginning of the game.
Nikhazy pitched eight strong innings and Mississippi pounded out 11 hits as the No. 12 Rebels cruised past Clemson, 6-1, on Saturday night in the winners bracket of the Oxford Regional at Swayze Field.
With the loss, the Tigers (35-25) will take on Jacksonville State at 3 p.m. Sunday in an elimination game. The Gamecocks defeated Illinois 7-5 earlier in the day to stay alive in the double-elimination tournament. It was Jacksonville State’s first NCAA postseason tournament victory.
The Tigers will need to win three games over the next two days to advance to a super regional.
Clark, who came into the game with a team best 9-2 mark, never looked comfortable on the mound. His control, which had been a staple for him all season, deserted the redshirt sophomore against the Ole Miss hitters. In just 3 1/3 innings, he gave up five hits, four runs and walked three batters. It was his shortest outing of the season.
“They got to Clark early in the ballgame and we gave up a big inning in the second,” said Clemson head coach Monte Lee. “Mat’s been good for us all year long. He’s thrown well. He just wasn’t as sharp for us as he has been in the past and they jumped on him early. I thought their offense was very good and they got into our bullpen very early.”
Nikhazy (8-3) earned the win by allowing just four hits, one run and three walks with nine strikeouts on just 116 pitches (80 strikes).
“I thought Doug Nikhazy was outstanding, I thought he was phenomenal,” Lee said. “The story of the game was their starting pitcher. Offensively, we just couldn’t find the answer against their starter tonight. He pitched extremely well and their closer came in and did a nice job filling up the strike zone.”
The four hits were the fewest number of hits by the Tigers all season.
“(Nikhazy) was hitting his spots,” said Clemson’s Grayson Byrd. “He was throwing that big breaking ball. It was coming out of the same tunnel as his fastball, so it was tough for us to kind of adjust to that. I just feel like everything he was throwing was tough to hit. He was in and out of the zone. Fastballs inside, fastballs away, breaking balls for strikes, breaking balls in the dirt. He was just on. You tip your cap to him.”
Mississippi wasted little time getting after Clark. Cole Zabowski and Cooper Johnson led off the second inning with back-to-back home runs, then the Rebels added another run in the frame without a hit. Mississippi (39-25) scored a run in the fourth inning on a wild pitch and another run in the sixth inning on Grae Kessinger's sacrifice fly.
The Tigers finally got on the scoreboard in the seventh inning with a run after a double by Byrd and single by Kyle Wilkie. Pinch-hitter Kevin Graham led off the eighth inning with the Rebels' third home run of the game. Michael Green hit a single in the third inning to extend his hitting streak to 13 games.
“We need to be a little bit better (Sunday),” Lee said. “I thought we chased out of the zone a good bit tonight and we need to be more disciplined at the plate. We need to find a way to score early against Jacksonville State. I think that’s been the biggest difference for us lately. We’ve been able to score early and get deeper in the game with our starters. Those are biggest keys for us going into Sunday.”