Lack of 'best stuff' enough for Kuebel, Hawkeyes

BY BEN SCHUFF | MARCH 26, 2012 6:30 AM

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Iowa manager Jack Dahm and Sunday's starting catcher Keith Brand shared similar sentiments about starter Sasha Kuebel following the Hawkeyes' 3-1 victory over Northwestern: He didn't have his best stuff.

Nearly two weeks had passed since Kuebel's last start — an eight-inning, 7-strikeout performance on March 12 — which could explain why Iowa pitching coach Chris Maliszewski said the freshman wasn't looking sharp in the bullpen before the game against the Wildcats.

But if Kuebel left something to be desired in his warm-up session, he didn't show it once he took the mound on the field. The left-hander threw seven strong innings, which allowed the Hawkeyes to win their first Big Ten series opener since 1998.

The St. Louis native yielded only 2 hits to a Northwestern club owning the conference's fourth-best team batting average (.291). Only three Wildcats reached scoring position, and one of those only did so because of an error by right fielder Sean Flanagan.

"I don't think he had his best stuff today. I've seen him with better stuff," Dahm said. "He just competed — he's a very confident kid."

Brand said he noticed a few things early on — such as a lack of movement on Kuebel's changeup — that indicated the southpaw wasn't as sharp as usual. But that didn't stop Kuebel from retiring the first six batters he faced.

"It just shows how good of a pitcher he is that he can get batters out … without even having his best stuff," Brand said. "You can imagine how good he can be when he has his good stuff going."

Perhaps Kuebel's most important moments came after Brand gave Iowa a 2-1 lead with a fourth-inning RBI single. Kuebel set down seven-consecutive Wildcat batters before Northwestern third baseman Nick Linne singled to left with one out in the seventh. He got out of the inning unscathed, marking the third time in his last four starts that Kuebel has gone at least seven frames.

Those starts have solidified him as Iowa's third starter. Sunday marked his third-straight start in which he allowed no walks. Kuebel he hasn't thrown as many innings as Iowa's No. 1 starter Jarred Hippen has (29 1/3 to Hippen's 44 2/3), but his four walks are the best among Hawkeye starters.

And those numbers are coming from a pitcher who Dahm said on Feb. 9 would be given "the first two to three weeks to see if he can be the No. 3 starter."

The words really sunk in, Kuebel said after his fifth start on Sunday, and he has taken full advantage of the opportunity.

The biggest adjustment he has had to make from high school to college is keeping the ball down in the strike zone. Outside of one poor start against Youngstown State on March 4, he appears to be making those adjustments smoothly; his 2.15 ERA is second-best on the team and the lowest of the starters.

"He's figuring out how to pitch more than just throw the ball now," Brand said. "You can see how effective he's been."

Follow DI baseball reporter Ben Schuff on Twitter.

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