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Schmidt eyeing the big leagues

Schmidt eyeing the big leagues

FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. -- Nick Schmidt realized his pro potential at a practice during the 2006 Southeastern Conference Tournament. All day, teammates kept walking up to him and offering congratulations for winning the SEC Pitcher of the Year Award. At the end of practice, Arkansas head coach Dave Van Horn gave Schmidt a huge plaque commemorating his tremendous season, a season that yielded a 9-3 record and 3.01 ERA for the Razorbacks.

"Holy cow," Schmidt remembers. "And then, it really hit home. I can really take this to a career and can really go farther in my life with this."

But Schmidt quickly reminded himself that the award wasn't a one-way ticket. The left-hander still had to follow the same adages he'd relied on since he started playing baseball: Keep getting better and keep proving to himself and others that he could compete -- and win -- against the best.

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"It was a great accomplishment and I didn't want to sit on it," Schmidt said. "I didn't say, 'Oh, I have done this already and I don't have to do anything else,' because that's not how it is."

Schmidt used the award to jump-start a terrific summer with Team USA and another great season this spring. After tossing 7 1/3 innings in a losing effort against Mississippi on Thursday night, the 6-foot-5, 230-pound Schmidt is 9-3 with a 3.08 ERA in 108 innings. His .211 opponents' batting average ranks as one of the best in the country.

Schmidt was recently named one of 10 semifinalists for the Roger Clemens Award, an honor recognizing college baseball's best pitcher. While he doesn't have the stuff of Vanderbilt's David Price, an SEC opponent and the consensus No. 1 pick in the upcoming First-Year Player Draft, Schmidt's bulldog mentality has kept him as an SEC Pitcher of the Year Award front-runner again this year.

"It's his competitiveness that sticks out," Alabama head coach Jim Wells said. "Price is on a different level because he throws 100 [mph], but Schmidt didn't fall into any patterns when we faced him. He didn't have any pitches that stuck out any more than the others. He just wins."

The consistent winning is still the product of some impressive stuff. Schmidt throws a four-seam fastball in the low to mid 90s, a breaking ball and a straight changeup. Scouts project Schmidt as a late first-round to early second-round selection in the upcoming draft.

But Illinois State head coach Jim Brownlee believes otherwise. The only coach to see Schmidt and Missouri State left-hander Ross Detwiler -- a projected top-five selection -- this season, Brownlee thinks Schmidt will have the better career.

"I think that Nick Schmidt has a little bit more of an upside," Brownlee said. "The one thing that I think he has that makes him pretty special is that he can get the ball inside to right-handed-hitters as a left-handed pitcher, and I think that is why he will pitch a long time in the big leagues. I haven't seen too many lefties that can get it in on righties. He dominates them."

It's that fastball that has befuddled teams around the country the past three springs. The four-seamer has a darting, downward movement that Brownlee said was similar to a two-seam, sinking fastball.

"I think with wood bats he will dominate with his fastball," Brownlee said. "He can really locate it and I think that makes the difference from Ross. ... You just don't get any swings off of Schmidt. He's pretty good. It doesn't happen very often in college that a guy can command both sides of the plate, and he does that very well with velocity."

Schmidt has had a strong fastball and good circle changeup since middle school. He didn't start throwing a breaking ball until his junior year of high school, but he rarely used it because he could dominate opposing lineups for Vianney High School (Mo.) with the two pitches. Schmidt helped his team win the 2004 state championship, tossing a one-hitter, including nine strikeouts and nine walks, in a 1-0 state semifinal win.

"I really didn't know how to pitch in high school," Schmidt said, sitting in the Arkansas dugout after a recent practice. "I just kind of threw and guys either struck out or walked."

Schmidt was talented enough to pitch on the Midwest Prospects, a traveling team that yielded several future first-round draft picks, including Scott Elbert and Blake DeWitt. While Elbert and DeWitt entered the draft, Schmidt and two teammates -- Shaun Seibert and T.J. Sinovich -- signed with the Razorbacks. Schmidt was considered the third-best pitcher of the trio, but an overhaul of his mechanics changed things. Schmidt quickly became the best pitcher from his recruiting class -- and on the Razorbacks' staff.

"I learned a lot because I basically didn't have anything to go off of," Schmidt said. "I just learned to stand up over my back leg and not fly open. Even though I still do that, I kind of understand when I do it and how to correct it."

Schmidt went 8-2 with a 2.80 ERA as a freshman in 2005, including a complete game against Texas in the NCAA Regional -- an outing that Schmidt calls "one of the highlights of my collegiate career."

He improved as a sophomore, developing a breaking ball that he threw every day in practice. Coupled with the terrific fastball and mound presence, Schmidt became the SEC's best pitcher.

"I get a feeling inside that no one is going to beat me today," Schmidt said. "It's my day to shine and I am going to prove to you why. I am just going to go out there and do it."

It is that mentality that helped Schmidt win his prestigious award at the SEC Tournament, an award that vaulted him into the ranks of the elite pitchers in the country and helped him earn a spot on the USA national team with Price, Detwiler and other top pitchers. Schmidt outshone everyone, posting a 3-1 record, a 1.31 ERA and winning the gold medal game against Chinese Taipei.

And, if the current draft predictions ring true, Schmidt will have his chance against the pros in a few short weeks.

Conor Nicholl is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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