Nebraska's Kyle Kubat plopped down in the NU dugout after another quick inning, disappeared underneath a hooded sweatshirt and started thinking of a song to hum to himself.
Not exactly the body language of quick-working strike-thrower who, despite a brief midgame hiccup, was again keeping opposing hitters off-balance and befuddled. His third start of the year Sunday was the most impressive of his young career, pitching eight efficient innings in a 3-1 win against Rutgers (20-22) to snap the Huskers' four-game losing streak.
And it's Kubat's between-innings routine — chew gum and spit it out, chomp on seeds and spit them out, before stretching and warming the arm back up — that he says helps him to remain poised. Without the mental reset Sunday, the sophomore left-hander doesn't last.
“You've got to breathe. You've got to relax. Don't try to do too much. Don't try to get over-amped again. Don't get down on yourself,” Kubat said. “Just come back and refocus. That's what I did in the dugout.”
Between pitches, too. His new quirk this year: He pulls the baseball out of his glove behind his back, just to remind himself not to dwell on the past — especially when things are going well.
The adrenaline started pumping in the fifth inning, after Kubat had breezed through the first four on 45 pitches.
His fastballs and change-ups started to rise in the strike zone, though. Two of the four hits he allowed came in the fifth, leading to Rutgers' only run. An inning later, he walked a batter, needed a full count to dispose of another and gave up a laser line drive to center field.
“I had to calm myself down,” said Kubat, who threw 95 pitches and struck out two.
So he reached for the hoodie and the snacks, zoning out to mentally lock himself back in.
His strategies have worked this year. Kubat, who sat out two months with arm soreness, has a 1.50 ERA in 18 innings, allowing six hits.
He was in a groove from the start Sunday, too. And it helped that his defense gobbled up seemingly every borderline base hit.
Sophomore right fielder Austin Darby made a sliding grab in the third. Chad Christensen's running catch deep in the left-field gap likely saved a run in the seventh inning. Second baseman Pat Kelly made a couple diving stops, and Bryan Peters knocked down a rocketed grounder in the ninth.
“At the end of the day, the foundation of winning is built on pitching and defense,” NU coach Darin Erstad said. “You saw that here.”
Then again, those two facets of the Huskers' game were pretty reliable during a weekend when the NU bats suddenly went quiet at the TD Ameritrade Classic. The Huskers didn't commit an error in four games and their pitching staff had a 3.65 ERA (starters gave up eight runs in 25-1/3 innings).
Yet Nebraska lost three of four, most notably because it totaled nine runs during the weekend after averaging 7.6 per game in its last 13 contests.
But the Huskers had just enough production against the Scarlet Knights. And it all came in the second inning.
Sophomore Blake Headley's RBI double made it 1-0. Darby drove in Headley six pitches later and sophomore catcher Tanner Lubach put Nebraska up 3-0 with a two-out single to left.
“This weekend didn't turn out the way we wanted it to … but this win really gets us rolling into the next weekend against Indiana,” Headley said.
NU (20-23, 11-4 Big Ten) and the No. 17 Hoosiers (34-8, 11-4), who come to Haymarket Park for a three-game series starting Saturday, are tied for second place in the conference standings behind Minnesota (26-14, 9-3).
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