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The best comes last

- The Washington Times - Saturday, May 31, 2008

The choice in front of Michael Schwimer was clear after two years as a top setup man.

There was no question major league teams would be interested in the 6-foot-8, 240-pounder from Alexandria, and the calls started rolling in on draft day.

Clubs couldn't help but woo the big right-hander, then a junior at Virginia. From his sheer size to his vital role on a postseason team to his improvement since a forgettable freshman year, there was a lot to like about Schwimer.

But after 10 rounds passed, he knew he would be back in Charlottesville for his final season.

"I got calls around the 12th round saying they'll draft me if I will sign," Schwimer said. "It was a tough decision, but I know I made the right one. I was honest. I said, 'Don't even draft me because there's no shot I'm signing.'"

It turned out to be the best choice for both Schwimer and the Cavaliers (38-22), who reached the NCAA tournament for the fifth straight year but fell 3-2 to UCLA last night in their postseason opener in Fullerton, Calif.

Schwimer, meanwhile, emerged as the sort of relief anchor Virginia is accustomed to. He is 3-1 with a 1.84 ERA and tied for fifth in the country with 13 saves.

"Michael is as valuable a pitcher as we have on our team," Virginia coach Brian O'Connor said. "He's proven this year to be one of the best closers in the country, and his numbers speak for themselves."

Three years ago, those numbers would have been unthinkable.

Schwimer was part of the first recruiting class O'Connor assembled, and like so many high school hot shots, he figured he knew how best to harness his talents. An impressive fall debut did little to squelch his optimism.

Then the spring arrived, and he was exposed as a thrower rather than a pitcher. He appeared in only eight games and was scorched for a 10.80 ERA, and the fact he struggled to get along with coaches only made matters worse.

It left him with plenty to work on in order to salvage his career.

"It was a little slice of humble pie," Schwimer said. "There's a lot of people who get their humble pie, and they don't really turn it around. I was determined to work my tail off and come back and get the job done at this level."

So he has. The two years as a setup man allowed him to pitch important innings for the Cavaliers while also developing a repertoire featuring a two-seam fastball that can reach 93 mph, a superb slider and a change-up that has improved this season.

Opponents are hitting only .188 off Schwimer this year, a figure that has helped him slide into the spot vacated by Casey Lambert, the ACC's career saves leader. And he has done it his own way, with a professional approach that has allowed him to translate his setup success into the ninth inning.

"One thing I think gives him the edge is the way he goes about his business and his composure toward the game," catcher Franco Valdes said. "The minute he walks out of the pen with the way he carries himself, it's a mental win. Most teams when they see him are like, 'Oh [no], here comes Michael Schwimer. The game is over.'"

Added O'Connor: "He's aggressive. He attacks hitters with his best stuff. He's just got the perfect mentality to be pitching at the end of the game."

O'Connor believes Schwimer will earn an opportunity to thrive at the pro level, and Schwimer said he has heard from several clubs of late leading up to next week's draft.

He will be selected at some point; when is another matter altogether. His size makes him an appealing prospect, though he doesn't have the leverage to return to school as he did a year ago.

"I don't think he's the prototypical closer," said Matt Blood, an assistant editor at Baseball America. "He only throws around 90, and that's not what a team will look for in a closer. ... I see him as a middle-round guy mainly because he's not a closer and not a starter. Teams aren't going to reach for a senior who can't fill that closer void."

Going somewhere between the 10th and 20th rounds, about where Blood projected Schwimer, wouldn't be much different than where he might have been selected last season.

In the interim, he has earned a degree and showed the ability to finish off games - and further validated a decision he knew was best from the start.

"This has been the best year of my life," Schwimer said. "I wouldn't trade it for anything. There's no way playing minor league baseball would be better than this."