State of the Hogs: Nick Schmidt

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So much consternation, so much wasted time. That's what I've thought the last three weeks as one Arkansas baseball fan after another asked what was wrong with Nick Schmidt.

There was even one person who alerted me to the stories in national college baseball blogs and Web sites noting Schmidt's demise as a first round draft pick in the upcoming June pro draft.

Yes, Schmidt wasn't as good the last three weeks as he'd been for most of his three-year run through the SEC, the nation's best baseball conference. He'd given up a few home runs. He'd been less than perfect at spotting his fastball. There had been a few hanging off-speed pitches. Yes, he had been un-Schmidt like for three outings.

But you don't erase 40 dominant starts over the last three seasons with three outings that aren't quite up to his standards. If his teammates had scored a few more runs in that stretch, Schmidt's mini slump might have gone undetected.

It was suggested that Schmidt's mechanics had slipped into some bad habits during that stretch. A good bullpen session last week seemed to correct those minor flaws. If the Hogs had scored a few more runs Thursday night against Ole Miss, he'd have gotten a victory. And, if he was pitching in a bigger park, two balls that barely made it over the fence in the short area of the park in straight away left field would have been outs.

It was after that game that someone promised a quick end to the Arkansas season if the coaches didn't wake up and move Schmidt behind Jess Todd in the UA rotation for the SEC tournament. Never mind that Todd would be pitching on 1.5 days fewer rest when the Hogs met Alabama at 10 a.m. on Wednesday in the tournament's first game.

No, the UA brain trust knew better. They also knew what they had in Schmidt, one of the best to ever pitch in the SEC.

A stomach bug on Wednesday morning gave Schmidt something else to worry about instead of mechanics, or quite possibly his status in the June pro draft. The draft is always something that weighs heavily on the minds of the nation's best collegiate juniors at this point in the season.

They can press a little if something creeps into their mechanics. No doubt, that is what happened to Schmidt the last few outings.

Schmidt didn't feel well on Wednesday. He said he woke up with a little bug and that made him "stay within himself" both in the bullpen and through the early innings in the 6-0 victory over Alabama. Sometimes that happens. He quit trying so hard and just let it all happen naturally.

And, don't minimize Wayne Hrozek's early RBI single for a 1-0 lead did for Schmidt's confidence. It quickly jumped to 5-0 on Danny Hamblin's three-run homer. There's nothing like some run support to provide a mental boost.

I talked to a pro scout a couple of weeks ago who has been following Schmidt's every move. It's amazing how the scouts dissect the top prospects.

It isn't just about putting a radar gun on his fastball. It's about facial expressions. It's about how they react to a bad call.

This particular scout recalled Schmidt's water moccasin demeanor from the two previous seasons. He said he thought Schmidt wanted to bite the umpire's head off when he missed a call his freshman and sophomore seasons, but wasn't as ferocious on the mound his past season. He took that as good news.

"He's really calmed down out there and that is something he needed to do," the scout said. "Pro baseball is a long, hard deal. It is a grind. You can't fight through every pitch and every call like that. And, at the pro level, you can't show up the ump. Ignore it and pitch. You have to roll with the punches. I like what I see from Nick this year."

Then, another scout told me, "You wish you'd see a little more fight in him this year. He isn't competing on every pitch like he did the previous two seasons I've seen him. I wonder if he hasn't gotten a little complacent."

Go figure. One man's treasure is another man's junk, or something like that.

I don't buy any of it. All I know is that Nick Schmidt, the UA's all-time strikeout king, is the best to ever toe the rubber at Arkansas. He's going high in the draft, most likely in the first round. A 6-6 lefty with heat, a changeup and an assortment of breaking pitches is coveted at the next level. And, Schmidt's inside hummer that aluminum bats muscle weakly down the line the other way are going to leave pro hitters with splinters.

I didn't need to see him pitch a two-hit shutout against Alabama to open the SEC tournament Wednesday to know all of that. I'm just glad everyone else saw it. It could have been a no-hitter against the team which has pretty much owned the SEC tournament the last few years. Those two bouncers just out of the shortstop's reach weren't exactly solid hits.

I don't know what's going to happen the rest of the way with this Arkansas baseball team, but don't ask me anymore if I'm worried about Schmidt. Nothing against Jess Todd, but Nick Schmidt is the man.

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