LINCOLN — Nebraska left-hander Kyle Kubat is doing all he can to make up for the time he lost while rehabbing a sore throwing arm.
The sophomore changed speeds and varied location to control the Big Ten’s best collection of sluggers Sunday. And an opportunistic NU lineup and its efficient defense — highlighted by Chad Christensen’s leaping grab in left field — did the rest as the Huskers (21-24, 12-5 Big Ten) evened a pivotal three-game series against No. 16 Indiana with a 3-2 victory at Haymarket Park.
Nebraska improved to 4-0 in Kubat’s four starts this year — the Omaha Creighton Prep standout sat out the season’s first two months. Kubat’s ERA is now 1.75 after Sunday’s 723 innings of five-hit baseball, never quite allowing the Hoosiers (35-9, 12-5) to get comfortable at the plate.
“After everything he’s been through, to come back healthy and help the team like he has, I think he’s doing more than enough,” NU coach Darin Erstad said. “He’s not the savior. He’s just another one of our guys, but our guys feel pretty confident when he’s on the mound.”
Sophomore Pat Kelly called Kubat’s 105-pitch performance “unbelievable.”
A “tremendous start,” Christensen said.
And Kubat was, well, just trying to keep his mind clear all day after the afternoon’s first few warmup pitches missed the strike zone, indicating he may not have his best stuff. Not ideal when facing Indiana, which has a league-high 17 home runs in conference action and began the week with the nation’s 11th-best batting average (.315).
But Kubat breezed through the first three innings, needing 30 pitches to face the minimum. He managed to escape bases-loaded jams in the fourth and fifth frames and would have ended the day without any runs on the board had Indiana’s Michael Basil not poked a two-out, two-run single off reliever Dylan Vogt in the eighth inning.
That trimmed NU’s lead to 3-2, but the Hoosiers went down in order against Josh Roeder in the ninth.
“(I) just had to trick myself into thinking I had everything,” Kubat said. “Just had to be confident with my pitches, and just throw, not think.”
His unwavering focus once again seemed to inspire the Huskers, who pulled back into a tie for second place with Indiana in the Big Ten.
Nebraska’s fielders, especially Christensen, made all the necessary plays behind Kubat. In the third inning, the former shortstop tracked down a bouncing single in left field and gunned down a Hoosier trying for second base. His seventh outfield assist on the year left leery IU base runners hesitant from that point on.
Three innings later, it was Christensen again. This time sprinting to his right and making a leaping catch at the wall to rob Basil of a double, spiking the padding with his right foot to avoid slamming into the barrier.
“When (Kubat’s) rolling like that, you’ve got to go make plays for him,” Christensen said. “I just saw it off the bat, found the wall and made a catch.”
Indiana’s defense wasn’t nearly as reliable.
The Hoosiers committed four errors, including two in the first inning that helped the Huskers take a 1-0 lead.
Junior Michael Pritchard reached when third baseman Dustin DeMuth couldn’t field a ground ball, then sprinted out of a rundown and advanced to second on a bouncing throw that was intended to catch Kelly inching too far off third base. Christensen’s come-backer off the glove of pitcher Kyle Hart scored Kelly.
In the fifth, Pritchard advanced to third base on two wild pitches, then scored to make it 3-0 when sophomore Tanner Lubach walked with the bases loaded.
Twenty-two of Indiana’s 48 errors have come in its nine losses. NU knew it had to find ways to put pressure on the Hoosiers Sunday, Erstad said.
“We’ve just got to make sure we don’t strike out too much, put the ball in play, run the bases hard and see what we can get,” Erstad said. “They’re a pretty salty team.”
Indiana, which had won nine straight before Sunday, will face Nebraska in the series rubber match at 12:05 p.m. Monday at Haymarket Park.
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