As he began his bullpen session prior to Sunday's start, Kyle Kubat said he just didn't feel very sharp. The first half of his 30 warm-up tosses "weren't too hot" and although the next 15 went better, the lefty said he still didn't feel like he had his best stuff. That's a dangerous feeling for a pitcher in any situation, but when facing No. 16 Indiana, owner of the Big Ten's best offense, it appeared to be a recipe for disaster.
Kubat's solution? He said he simply tricked himself into thinking that he had everything in the first inning. He retired the dangerous Hoosiers in order, rediscovered his confidence and was well on his way to earning his fourth win in the past 19 days.
"Just don't think at all," Kubat said in describing his mentality on the mound. "Just go out there and throw and have fun."
Kubat certainly had fun Sunday holding the threatening Indiana offense in check. The Nebraska offense was far from explosive, but it did its part and helped the Huskers secure a 3-2 win in Haymarket Park. The victory improved NU to 21-24 overall and 12-5 in the Big Ten.
After watching Indiana belt four home runs Saturday night, Kubat admitted he was a bit nervous taking the mound. But he used a combination of fastballs and changeups to keep the Hoosiers in check. He wasn't perfect - Indiana loaded the bases in both the fourth and fifth innings. But each time, Kubat wiggled out of the jam.
He ran into some trouble again in the eighth, putting runners on second and third with two outs. Dylan Vogt came in and surrendered a single that brought both runners home, but he escaped without further damage and Josh Roeder slammed the door shut with a 1-2-3 ninth.
Kubat gave up just five hits in his 7.2 innings. He only struck out two, but he kept the Hoosiers off balance all game long.
"I just sit back and watch," coach Darin Erstad said. "When he's got his command down and is changing speeds, he just kind of lulls guys to sleep then he'll pop that fastball in. He has a really good feel for when to throw certain pitches. I really don't have to say anything to him. He's in his own little world out there, just playing like he's in his own little world and having a good time."
Left-handed pitching has given Nebraska trouble all year and the Huskers faced another good southpaw Sunday. Kyle Hart entered the contest with a 7-0 record and a 2.39 ERA, but the Huskers, aided by a pair of Hoosier errors, got to him in the first inning on an RBI single by Chad Christensen. Pat Kelly plated another run in the second with an RBI single and the Huskers added one more in the fifth, though they left the bases loaded.
"We grinded it out pretty good," Erstad said. "It wasn't anything spectacular, but it was enough to get it done. They're going to hit and they're going to pitch, so we have to do something. We just have to make sure we don't strike out too much and put the ball in play and run the bases hard and see what we can get."
The win pulls Nebraska even with Indiana for second place in the Big Ten standings behind Minnesota. Regardless of tomorrow's outcome, the Golden Gophers will enter next weekend's series with Nebraska as the conference leader, giving NU a supreme chance to take the spot for themselves. But for now, the Huskers are trying not to look too far ahead. Nebraska and Indiana will meet again in the series finale at 12:05 p.m. Monday.
"It's just been a battle so far throughout the two games," Christensen said. "We're pumped to get this win, but we've got to be focused getting ready for game three. That's a big game for us tomorrow."
***Josh Roeder: After a shaky performance by Vogt in the eighth, Roeder didn't give the Hoosiers any hopes of completing the comeback. He struck out the first hitter he faced and retired the next two without much difficulty to lock down his third save of the season.
***Chad Christensen: Not only did he notch two hits and knock in a run, but his defense in left field was spectacular. He picked up his seventh outfield assist and made possibly the Huskers' best defensive play of the year (see below).
Around the horn
***Christensen made the play of the day in the sixth inning. With one out, Michael Basil hit a fly ball to deep left field. Christensen tracked it and made a leaping catch at the wall to save what would have likely been a double. Nebraska's SID said he is going to send the play into Sportscenter in an effort to get it in the program's top 10 plays.
"If you make plays, you have a chance to win, and that was a huge one for a guy that hasn't played much outfield," Erstad said.
***Kubat's 104 pitches were a career high, topping the 95 pitches he threw against Rutgers last weekend.
***Rich Sanguinetti has now reached base at least once in each of NU's last 30 games.