MINNEAPOLIS — Nebraska’s Kyle Kubat walked out of his grandma’s funeral Tuesday morning and started thinking about the one place that would strip the pain away.
The ballpark was where he’d finally exhale. Had to be.
And despite the pressures of tournament play and the weight of an emotional week, that’s what the sophomore left-hander did Wednesday. In quite spectacular fashion.
Calm and collected on the mound and as goofy as ever between frames in the dugout, Kubat tossed a gem in honor of his grandma, Mary, who passed away at age 97 Friday.
Kubat took a no-hitter into the seventh inning, hurled a season-high 117 pitches and led No. 3 seed Nebraska to an 11-2 win over Michigan in the Big Ten tournament’s first round at Target Field.
“After the funeral, that’s the only thing I could think about. Getting here. Being here with my teammates,” Kubat said. “Just going out there, having fun and playing for my grandma.”
Kubat looked inspired from the start, retiring the first nine Michigan hitters. He mixed his mid-80s fastball in with a deceptive change-up, occasionally sprinkling in a curveball that was breaking better than coach Darin Erstad’s seen all year.
The lone hit off Kubat came with two outs in the seventh when he elevated a fastball. He was only able to watch Kevin White’s line drive scream by him and land in center field.
“It was fun while it lasted,” said Kubat, who was part of NU’s combined no-hitter against Arkansas on April 16.
Erstad made sure to inform his competitive sophomore during a postgame press conference Wednesday that a pitching change was coming after the seventh inning, anyway.
Because the game was well in hand.
Nebraska jumped on top of No. 6 seed Michigan (29-26) 4-0 in the third inning, when senior Kash Kalkowski hit an RBI single and sophomore Blake Headley followed with a two-run single. Sophomore Austin Darby broke the game wide open when he came up with the bases loaded in the sixth, driving a first-pitch fastball high off the 23-foot right-field wall to put NU up 7-0.
The Huskers (26-28) added three runs in the seventh and one more in the eighth.
“You get starting (pitching) like that, it can let you do a lot of things,” Erstad said. “That set the tone for us.”
It’s part of the reason why Kubat so desperately wanted to pitch.
He arrived in Minneapolis a day after his teammates, flying separately Tuesday.
But Kubat fully understood the importance of Wednesday’s game — how a day one loss drops you into the losers bracket, where you’d have to win six straight times in four days to get a tournament title. To make an NCAA regional, Nebraska has to win this whole thing.
And Kubat remembered what his grandma told him last week. Their final conversation.
“I won’t censor myself. The last words she told me: ‘Kick some ass. I love you,’ ” Kubat said.
Looking back, Kubat said, that gave him some peace.
No wonder he seemed like himself all game long Wednesday — making faces at the BTN cameras, climbing over the dugout fence after innings (instead of walking down the steps) or sneaking up behind a teammate, ducking his shoulders underneath the guy’s legs and momentarily lifting him off the ground.
He locked back in on the hill, trying his best to stay low in the strike zone while getting ahead early in the count.
Wolverine hitters had no chance after that — just the way Grandma Mary ordered it up.
“She’d want me to be here,” Kubat said. “I just take that with me wherever I go.”
With the win, Nebraska advances to face No. 2 seed Ohio State at 3:35 p.m. Thursday. The Buckeyes won two of three games against the Huskers at Haymarket Park this year.
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