Fridays Are Made For Schmidt

Lefthander has proven an unlikely ace

Taking Nick Schmidt out of a ballgame requires a delicate touch. After all, there's a reason the Arkansas coaches pretty much leave their ace lefthander alone on days he pitches. They're just trying to stay out of his way.

"The best time to take Nick out is when he's in the dugout, tell him he's done a great job," Razorbacks coach Dave Van Horn said. "He does get a little upset when you come to get him. He wants to stay in there, and we appreciate that."

Everyone who has crossed paths with Schmidt says the same thing: it's his fierce, competitive nature that sets the junior apart. That's what Texas Christian coach Jim Schlossnagle said after serving as Team USA's pitching coach last summer and watching Schmidt go 3-1, 1.31 with 38 strikeouts in 34 innings for the national team.

"He's the ultimate Jekyll and Hyde guy I've ever been around," Schlossnagle said late in the summer. "He's the nicest kid off the field, but when he's pitching he's an animal. He's very, very competitive."

Schmidt doesn't deny it.

"That's how it is for me. I can't pitch loosely on the mound. I have to pitch with anger for me to be effective," he said. "Off the field I try to be nice to everybody, but when it comes game day, I just want to be in my own little world. If I'm going to start an inning, I'm going to finish it. Don't leave any business undone. That's kind of how I go about life."

When Arkansas recruited Schmidt out of St. Louis, he was considered the fourth- or fifth-best pitcher in their 2004 recruiting class. He did not have a particularly strong fall, but he worked very hard and when he returned from winter break things started to click for him. By the time Arkansas opened its season against Dallas Baptist in February, the kid who was nearly an afterthought on the recruiting trail was starting the Hogs' second game of the season. He won it, and the next week he was starting on Friday. He hasn't missed a Friday start since.

"That's my night to shine," Schmidt said. "I want the guys to feel like when we go out there that that's a win. I'm going to work my tail off to get a win for us."

He's been as good as his word, going 8-2, 2.80 in 2005 en route to second-team freshman All-America honors and going 9-3, 3.01 with 145 strikeouts and 50 walks in 117 innings as a sophomore, good enough for second-team All-America honors. He succeeds with his guile and intimidating mound presence even more than his stuff, which is solid but not overpowering like you might expect from someone who is 6-foot-5, 230 pounds.

Schmidt's best pitch is his fastball, which sits in the 87-90 mph range but touches 91-92 when he needs a little extra. He spots it very well and is not afraid to bust hitters inside.

"His changeup has really developed since he came in here, and the breaking ball's gotten better," Van Horn said. "The curveball has been up and down, but late last year it really developed and got better. When he came in he was mostly a fastball guy, and (pitching) Coach (Dave) Jorn's worked with different grips on his fastball to get more movement."

Schmidt admitted he suffered some fatigue last summer, when he said his fastball velocity was down, and his curveball wasn't as sharp and his changeup not as consistent. But he battled with the stuff he had and essentially willed himself to a standout summer.

Schmidt got off to a slow start this spring after a minor hand injury set back his progress a bit over the winter, but he said he is at full strength now, and it shows. Schmidt struck out 11 in a complete-game win against Minnesota at the Dairy Queen Classic, improving to 3-0, 1.50 through five starts in 2007.

He appears well on his way to a spot in the first two rounds of the draft in June, as well as a big payday to help him support his 3-month-old son Mason. By all accounts, the Mr. Hyde in Schmidt will make a terrific father, but it'll be Dr. Jekyll that pays the bills.