Iowa baseball's Kuebel continues to shine

BY BEN SCHUFF | MAY 11, 2012 6:30 AM

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Iowa's top starting pitcher models his game after a former major-league journeyman shortstop.

When freshman Sasha Kuebel was asked if he tries to emulate a big-league pitcher when he toes the rubber, the St. Louis native immediately offered David Eckstein's name instead.

"As weird as that is to say," Kuebel said and laughed. "I always looked up to him, not because of his talent — he's not one of the big dogs like [Albert] Pujols or one of those guys — but he came to the field every day with the mentality that he's going to work as hard as he can, and he's going to do what he can to help the team win."

While the left-hander may not think of Eckstein as a "top dog," Kuebel has become one himself in the Big Ten. His consistent effort has earned him a Saturday start as Iowa's No. 2 pitcher this weekend when the Hawkeyes travel to East Lansing, Mich., for a three-game series with Michigan State.

Kuebel had started the third game of each of the Hawkeyes' Big Ten series to this point in the season, but a strong case could be made that he has been Iowa's top pitcher. He ranks in the top-10 in the conference in several pitching categories and leads all Big Ten freshmen in ERA, opponents' batting average, runs allowed, earned runs allowed, and fewest walks allowed.

All that comes from a pitcher that Iowa manager Jack Dahm said before the season would be given a few starts and "we'll go from there."

"I thought he was going to be successful," Iowa pitching coach Chris Maliszewski said. "I can't say I knew he'd be this successful."

Kuebel's 3.03 ERA is the lowest of Iowa's starting pitchers, and it has been for a significant portion of the season. It's one reason he's the only one of the Hawkeyes' three weekend starters to boast a winning team record of 7-4. Iowa is 5-6 when Jarred Hippen takes the mound, 1-10 in Matt Dermody's starts.

"The confidence Sasha has in himself rubs off onto other players when they're playing behind him," Dahm said. "It seems nowadays it's tougher and tougher to find kids with his type of confidence — but also back it up when he gets on the mound. It's pretty rare to see."

What's not rare to see is Kuebel giving Iowa a quality start. He has only failed to pitch into the seventh inning in three of his 11 starts.

Kuebel's most recent outing was arguably the best of his young Big Ten career. He shut down Michigan on May 5 by pitching a complete game and allowing only 2 runs to keep the Maize and Blue from a sweep. Michigan had scored 19 runs in the first two games of the series.

Kuebel really struggled only twice this year. The first time was on March 4 against Youngstown State — a game Iowa won in extra innings — and the second came on April 1 at Indiana, a 10-5 Hoosier victory. Both starts taught him some tactical aspects like the importance of keeping the ball down, he said — but they also taught him to slow down mentally.

"You can't go out there thinking about a million things every second," Kuebel said. "You just have to go out there and have fun."

Follow DI baseball reporter Ben Schuff on Twitter.

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