LINCOLN — Nebraska pitcher Kyle Kubat stood on Haymarket Park’s left-field concourse and looked toward the east. Toward Omaha.
The Huskers haven’t qualified for the NCAA tournament in six years, they haven’t reached the College World Series since 2005 and they’re still adjusting to a new conference they’d hoped to dominate — and yet, the sport’s pinnacle doesn’t seem so far away.
“That’s what we strive for. Every year,” Kubat said.
Granted, all college ballplayers will tell you this on the first day of practice each January. It’s easy to dream big three weeks before opening day, and most do.
But optimism’s growing in Nebraska’s clubhouse. More than it has in a while. The players say there are reasons to think that some kind of breakthrough is coming, especially after the 2013 season ended on a last at-bat hit that clinched the Big Ten tournament title for eventual CWS participant Indiana.
No, Nebraska baseball’s not part of the nation’s elite. But Kubat and his teammates have been talking among themselves a lot lately. “We were right on that cusp,” he said.
The junior left-hander is part of the reason the Huskers feel so confident.
Kubat, junior lefty Aaron Bummer and senior right-hander Christian DeLeon — who emerged as the team’s most reliable arms by the end of 2013 — all return to provide NU with something it hasn’t had in the first two years of Darin Erstad’s tenure: a predetermined weekend rotation.
It’s typically taken half a season for Erstad’s teams to establish roles on the mound. Last year, the Huskers used 11 starting pitchers, the most in the Big Ten and the most by an NU team since 1997.
At this time a year ago, Kubat wasn’t practicing, Bummer hadn’t thrown more than two innings in a game and DeLeon had recently arrived from junior college.
Now, the trio is expected to set the tone for the 2014 squad.
Said Erstad: “If they’re healthy, they’ve earned the right to throw on the weekend. Absolutely. 100 percent.”
Ľ In 16 career starts at Nebraska, Kubat is 10-1 with a 2.23 ERA. Arm soreness sidelined him for about two months in 2013, but he returned healthy to end the year and feels fine now.
Ľ Bummer posted a 2.20 ERA after becoming a starter midway through last season. He gave up 11 hits in his last 21 innings. He had a strong summer, too, tabbed as the starting pitcher at the Cape Cod League All-Star game.
Ľ DeLeon threw past the sixth inning in seven of his eight starts in series openers last year. His final outing: eight scoreless innings in an elimination game win against Ohio State at the Big Ten tournament.
“That’s the difference between this year and last year,” DeLeon said. “We didn’t know who our top three guys were.”
But how much improvement is realistic?
NU, 29-30 last year, still must replace nearly half its offensive production from 2013. NU has key defensive vacancies at first base, shortstop and center field.
There’s plenty to do, Erstad said. But he doesn’t mind his players talking about their lofty standards or wondering aloud about the potential of this team. They just have to be ready for the inevitable reality check.
“The game will test your confidence and test what you have inside of you,” Erstad said. “They’re prepared for that.”
Nebraska opens its season Feb. 14 against Pacific.