Minneapolis - When Kyle Kubat faced Michigan last Thursday, he had arguably his worst start of the year. The sophomore gave up nine hits and three runs (two earned) through six innings as the Huskers lost for just the second time in his six starts.
But Kubat got his revenge Wednesday in Nebraska's first round-game in the Big Ten Tournament. The lefty shut the Wolverines out over seven innings and struck out a season-high six to help give the Huskers (26-28, 16-9) an 11-2 win over the Wolverines (29-26, 14-11).
"It all starts on the mound," coach Darin Erstad said. "When our starter puts us in position to take the lead, it's a pretty good thing. We've done that from time to time this year and we're going to have to do that a few more times if we're going to do anything in this tournament."
With the victory, the Huskers will move on to play Ohio State Thursday at 3:35 p.m. The Buckeyes will throw righty Brad Goldberg (6-1, 3.13 ERA) against NU's Aaron Bummer (3-1, 2.49).
Kubat's performance was the story of the game, but the offense did its best to ensure he wouldn't be under much pressure all day long. Nebraska got a bit of help in the first when Michigan starter James Bourque, who was very effective in relief against NU last weekend, scored Rich Sanguinetti with a balk.
The Huskers would do the rest of the work themselves. First baseman Kash Kalkowski drove in a run with a bases-loaded single in the third and third baseman Blake Headley plated two more with a single one batter later. Center fielder Austin Darby added three more with a bases-clearing double that hit off the wall in right with two outs in the fifth to blow the game open.
"Walking up to the plate, I said 'You know what? I've been struggling against lefties. I've got nothing to lose here. Go up here and take a good swing,'" Darby said. "And the results came. It's been tough seeing lefties throughout the season and this is a good confidence boost."
Nebraska piled up 12 hits, giving the team at least 10 base knocks in seven of its past eight games, and walked eight times, tying the second-highest output of the season.
"Last weekend, (Bourque) was killing guys with the breaking ball and striking out hitters left and right," left fielder Michael Pritchard said. "Today our righties did a way better job sticking with the approach. He's walking guys and it's pretty easy when you're hitting with guys on base and the kid has to throw it down the middle."
But the day belonged to Kubat. The sophomore hurled a career-high 117 pitches and held a no-hitter into the seventh inning. With two outs and a man on first, Kevin White singled up the middle. Kubat looked a bit rattled and walked the next batter to load the bases, but induced a ground out to second to retire the threat and end his day.
The lefty pitched with a heavy heart Wednesday after attending his grandmother's funeral the day before. He said he was a bit emotional going in but knew he needed to come through if the Huskers were going to have a chance at winning the game and, in turn, the tournament.
"It was tough. But after the funeral, I knew I had to be here with my Husker family," Kubat said. "They were missing me and I missed them. That's all I could think about. It was an emotional start, but I know she was looking down. As always, it was established with first-pitch strikes and getting ahead of hitters and putting them away."
***Austin Darby: The sophomore appears to be breaking out of the slump that plagued him in the middle of the season. Darby doubled twice and drove in four runs to help the Huskers pull away in the middle innings.
***Blake Headley: The third baseman collected three hits in his five at-bats, driving in two and scoring once. His two-RBI single in the third gave Kubat some breathing room on the mound.
***Chad Christensen: He may have only had four hit, but Christensen was a catalyst for Nebraska in the middle of the order. The senior walked three times and scored four runs.
Around the horn
***Pitcher Christian DeLeon, who was scratched from his last start due to elbow soreness, threw a bullpen session during Wednesday's game. Erstad said his status is still undecided, but things are looking up for the junior.
"He took the next step," Erstad said. "He threw a little bit on Monday before we left. He threw a bullpen just like he would set up for pitching on Friday. We'll see how he is tomorrow. He's still day-to-day, but it's more on the positive side than the negative side. We're not in the business of hurting kids so we'll see where he's at and go from there."
***Erstad said last Saturday that Brandon Pierce's season might be over due to a back issue, but the junior has been feeling better lately. He made the trip and is available this week.
***This is the first time since 2007-08 that Nebraska is making back-to-back postseason appearances.
***Darby made his first career start in center field.