KALIDA – Kalida left-hander Austin Swift didn’t need a lot of motivation as a freshman.
But he got some anyway on the Wildcats’ preseason baseball picture day.
“I knew I could play with the bigger guys, but I took a team picture with the JV team,” Swift said. “I wasn’t asked to take a picture with the varsity (as a freshman) and I took that to heart a little bit. It made me strive every day to do my best and be a leader.”
The 5-foot-10, 200-pound senior has come a long way since his rookie picture day.
He leads the Wildcats with a 7-0 record and a microscopic 0.14 ERA this year.
Swift is the No. 1 pitcher for Kalida (22-1) which will meet New London in the Division IV baseball regional semifinals at 2 p.m. Thursday at Patrick Henry High School.
For the year, Swift has thrown 48 1/3 innings and given up only one earned run on 13 hits. He has 102 strikeouts and 21 walks.
When he’s not pitching, the Indiana Wesleyan-bound Swift plays center field and is batting .397.
He has two no-hitters this year, including one perfect game, and four no-hitters for his career.
“I think this year is the best I’ve had on the mound,” Swift said. “I’m bringing it really well and have command of all my pitches.”
He was also named the Putnam County League player of the year.
“I made him a captain as a sophomore,” Kalida coach Joe Recker said. “He’s not a vocal leader, but he leads by example with the work ethic he brings to practice every day.’’
Swift has been in the starting rotation since his freshman year. He had 13 strikeouts in his first game against Continental.
“He (coach Jim McBride) threw me out there in the first PCL game we played that year,” Swift said. “That was my first appearance. It was a big accomplishment for me winning the game. And I think that’s where I really gained my confidence. I knew I could play with anybody on the high school level.”
But it hasn’t been an easy ride since Day 1.
Swift struggled with his command during his first two years and he barely hit 80 mph by the end of his sophomore year.
“He didn’t have a good sophomore year,” Recker said. “He had a live arm, but was throwing in the high 70s. He walked too many guys. And he was pretty skinny.”
After Swift’s sophomore year, which was Recker’s first as head coach, Recker and Swift had a meeting.
“We had a heart-to-heart,” Recker said. “I told him, ‘If you want to make a commitment to this (baseball), you have to get in the weight room.’ From then on, he became a weight-room nut. He added 20 pounds of muscle.
“He played for the Locos Express and from his sophomore year to his junior year there was a tremendous transformation. Now it’s really paying off for him.”
Swift stuck with soccer his final two years, along with baseball. But as a junior, he didn’t go out for basketball, and instead, lifted weights in the winter.
“His sophomore year he was a skinny 180 and lacked strength,” Recker said. “Getting stronger gave him mental strength.”
Swift came back with a big junior year, compiling an ERA close to 2.00. He also improved his command and gained velocity, as he was throwing 84-85 mph.
However, last summer, he felt a twinge in his left elbow when he pitched at the Locos Showcase, in early June, which attracted college coaches from all over.
“I just played center field last summer and had to take it easy,” Swift said. “It turned out to be tendinitis. It scared me a little bit and it kind of brought me down because I couldn’t pitch and that’s what I love to do. That’s where I strive at in baseball. I like striking people out. It kind of worried me a little bit, but I worked extra hard to recover.”
Swift also worked with Locos pitching coach Brian Garman last fall. That helped him gain more strength and velocity.
Swift added that it was Garman who brought him and the coaches at Indiana Wesleyan (Marion, Indiana) together. Swift said he will be primarily a pitcher at Indiana Wesleyan, but added he could play outfield, as well.
Recker said that Kalida assistant coach Ryan Hoffman, the school’s strength and conditioning coach, and Kalida pitching coach Brian Klausing have also been a big help in Swift’s development.
“I feel a lot stronger than last year,” Swift said.
Most of this spring, he was throwing between 86 and 89 mph. He topped out at 89 in the district semifinal win over Miller City.
Since the start of the Division IV tournament, Swift has elevated his pitching to an elite level few have ever achieved.
In the 11-0 sectional finals win over Pandora-Gilboa, he threw a five-inning, perfect game with 15 strikeouts. He struck out every hitter he faced.
“I’ve never seen anything like it,” Recker said. “That’s as perfect as anyone can be. They only hit two foul balls off him. And they were weak foul balls.”
Then, in a 3-0, complete-game win over Miller City in the district semifinals last Wednesday, he went seven innings, giving up one hit and striking out 11. He threw 112 pitches, 72 for strikes.
Swift followed that with seven innings of relief to get the win in a 3-2, 10-inning district finals win over Leipsic on Saturday. He gave up two hits and one unearned run. He struck out 18 and walked three.
Swift again threw 112 pitches, 73 for strikes.
“He’s Austin,” Kalida catcher Jeff Knueve said. “We know when Austin’s out on the mound, we have a chance to win. We trust in him. When I catch him, I’m confident in anything he throws.”
For the three tourney games, Swift is 3-0 with a 0.00 ERA. In 19 tournament innings, he’s given up three hits. He has 44 strikeouts and five walks.
“Now he pounds the strike zone and makes people earn what they get,” Recker said.
The 86 to 89 mph fastball is Swift’s main weapon, but he also has a hard, nose-diving breaking ball/slider and a change-up.
“What makes him so good is his good, late movement. It’s really hard to pick that up,” Recker said.
It marks Kalida’s first regional baseball trip since 2007. That should be motivation enough for Swift this week.
“There’s no better feeling, being it’s my senior year,” he said. “I have to end on a good note. We’re coming together as a team and we’re having fun playing baseball.”
Reach Tom Usher on Twitter at @Lima_Usher