Sasha Kuebel’s pitching performance Saturday against Minnesota was as much about surviving as it was succeeding.
The junior southpaw lasted seven innings despite allowing four runs in the first inning on five hits as Iowa overcame a 5-0 deficit to defeat Minnesota 11-5 before an announced crowd of 1,036 at Duane Banks Field.
“I don’t know what it is with me, it’s either a shutout or I get tanked in the first inning,” said Kuebel, who pitched a complete-game shutout in his previous start, a 5-0 victory at Northwestern last Sunday. “But it felt good. I was able to settle in a little bit and I definitely got stronger.”
While Kuebel gained strength and confidence on the mound, his teammates chipped away at the lead, scoring one run in the second and fourth innings and four in the bottom of the sixth. The Hawkeyes finally got over the hump when junior shortstop Jake Yacinich smacked a 2-run triple to right centerfield in the bottom of the sixth inning, giving Iowa a 6-5 lead.
Senior right fielder Taylor Zeutenhorst also hit a mammoth solo home run to centerfield in the sixth inning, expanding Iowa’s lead to 8-5. The Sheldon native leads Iowa with seven home runs this season.
“When something like that happens, you just have to bear down and give your team every chance to win, and I feel like I did that,” said Kuebel, who is from St. Louis. “And the hitters were timely, especially Yacinich’s triple. That was huge. We got ahead and the momentum completely switched. And that gave me more confidence, too.”
The count was full on Yacinich when he hit the game-changing triple.
“We talk a lot about two-strike approach and protecting the outside half (of the plate), and if the guy comes in, just do the best to fight it off,” Yacinich said. “I had seen everything that the kid was throwing. And when (the count) got to 3-2, I figured he didn’t want to walk me and out another guy in scoring position.
“So I figured I was getting a fastball. And luckily, he left it up and I was able to put a good swing on it.”
Iowa improved to 21-15 overall and 6-8 in the Big Ten with Saturday’s come-from-behind victory. Minnesota, which defeated Iowa 4-3 on Friday, fell to 19-15 and 6-8 in the conference.
The teams will conclude their three-game series at 1 p.m. Sunday.
First-year Iowa coach Rick Heller praised Kuebel for persevering when the team needed him to do so in order to save the bullpen. Kuebel only allowed two hits after the second inning and he lasted for 117 pitches.
Sophomore Blake Hickman recorded five outs in relief before giving way to sophomore Jared Mandel for the final out in the ninth inning.
“It didn’t look good, and boy, we needed to log some innings out of him today for sure because (we used two relief pitchers) last night,” Heller said. “So it was good to see Sasha settle in and log some innings for us.
“A weaker group of guys would have given up early to get down five. We just kept chipping away. It was a big win for us.”
Iowa finished with 14 hits, including four by sophomore catcher Jimmy Frankos.
“It was a good day,” said Frankos, who is playing for an injured Trevor Kenyon. “I had a good approach at the plate and a good scouting report by the coaches to help us at the plate. And I was seeing the ball well.”
Frankos as the catcher also helped Kuebel relax and stay focused after the Hawkeyes quickly fell behind.
“We just had to settle him down,” Frankos said of Kuebel, who improved to 5-3 with the victory. “We know he’s a good pitcher. Obviously, he didn’t have his best stuff in that first inning. But we kept telling him we’re going to get you runs. He settled down and he did a great job of logging some innings and saving our pen.”