Baseball players tend to be creatures of habit, but Kyle Kubat's numerous routines may seem excessive even to most of them. The sophomore doesn't talk to anyone on the bench between innings - he tries to not even watch the game. There is a better chance he is singing a song in his head than keeping track of the pitch count.
With two outs, he gets up and tucks his jersey again to feel comfortable and goes through his throwing motion to get warm. When he takes the field, he goes straight for the back of mound, cautiously avoiding stepping on the baselines. He grabs the ball, walks around the mound once and taps the rosin bag three times, twice with the back of his hand and once with the front.
Finally, he brings the ball behind his back between every pitch. It's his way of mentally resetting after each pitch, whether it was the best of his career or a meatball, and putting the previous toss behind him. That technique in particular, which he developed over the offseason, came in handy Sunday against Rutgers. With NU leading 3-1 in the sixth, Kubat issued a one-out walk, moved the runner to second on a wild pitch and went 3-0 on the next hitter.
But he slid the ball behind his back, took a deep breath and retired the next two hitters to preserve Nebraska's lead. Behind the lefty's eight strong innings, the Huskers won 3-1 in its finale of the TD Ameritrade Classic in Omaha.
"In the fifth and sixth inning, you're not hyped up anymore," Kubat said. "The crowd is kind of like 'Let's get out of here, it's hot.' That's where the mental focus comes in. You have to breathe - it's as simple as that. You have to breathe and relax and don't try to get overamped again."
Kubat pitched the game's first eight innings and hoped to get a shot at the first complete game of his career, which also would have been Nebraska's first since Tom Lemke went the distance on May 2, 2010. But Darin Erstad turned to Dylan Vogt, who rebounded after giving up a leadoff single to earn his seventh save of the year.
Nebraska's offense, which had been quiet all weekend, briefly perked up in the second inning on Sunday. After Kash Kalkowski was plunked, Blake Headley sent a double into the left-center gap to score him. Austin Darby and Tanner Lubach each added RBI singles behind him to stake the Huskers out to a 3-0 lead.
Nebraska would have just four hits the rest of the game, but that was enough for Kubat. He went eight innings, easily the longest start of his career, on 95 pitches, allowing just four hits and a pair of walks. The Scarlet Knights did plate a run in the fifth, but Kubat would give them nothing else.
"Our bats went cold, but at the end of the day the foundation of winning is built on pitching and defense," Erstad said. "You do that and you'll have a chance to win. That's good baseball."
Nebraska finished the weekend with just one win in four games, but the Huskers hope this was the kind of victory that can propel them as they enter the most important stretch of the season. NU will face Big Ten foes Indiana, Minnesota and Michigan to determine their seeding in the Big Ten Tournament. The Huskers are 20-23 overall but are 11-4 in conference play.
"It was tough watching the first three games (this weekend)," Kubat said. "It's not how we planned it. But it's good to get this win and hopefully we can keep rolling with good pitching and good defense into this weekend against Indiana."
***Blake Headley: His RBI double got the ball rolling for the Huskers offense as he plated Kalkowski and came in to score himself one batter later. Headley added another hit and displayed excellent defense at both third and first base.
***Tanner Lubach: His RBI single in the second was his most obvious contribution, but some of the credit from Kubat's performance has to go to the catcher. Lubach was strong behind the plate and gunned down a potential base stealer in the first inning.
Around the horn
***Erstad never seriously considered putting Kubat back out on the mound in the ninth. The sophomore was in the midst of just his third start of the season after missing the first few months with arm soreness. At 95 pitches, Erstad didn't want to possibly jeopardize Kubat's future.
"We are building him up here and we have to understand what we're doing long-term," he said. "We've kind of built him up each and every day, but we've got some very capable guys behind him. You could start to see he was getting a little fatigued there in the eighth, but he found a way to get through it."
***Kalkowski was hit by a pitch in the forearm in the second inning, the 18th time he has been plunked this year. The senior came out after the inning and was replaced by Wes Edrington.
"It looks like it's on muscle," Erstad said. "I don't know much about it. He just had some grip strength issues where he couldn't grip the bat so we made the change."