At the end of the 1992 high school baseball season, Brian McNichol found himself at the bottom of a pile of jubilant Gar-Field High teammates as the Indians' winning pitcher in the Virginia state championship game, reaching what was then the ultimate goal.

Twelve years later, McNichol is still playing the game he loves, but the goals are a little more complex. In his ninth professional season -- a career that has included one month in the majors -- the 30-year-old McNichol is pitching for the Birmingham Barons, the Class AA affiliate of the Chicago White Sox. Winning the state title "is still one of my top memories in baseball," McNichol said. "That was the most I ever wanted then, to win. . . . Now it's getting my ERA down, trying to pitch as well as I can" to return to the big leagues.

In 2002, McNichol was a starting pitcher in the New York Yankees organization when he learned he would need ligament replacement surgery on his left elbow. Released by the Yankees, McNichol rehabbed at home in Arizona and decided to give it one more try.

"I thought about retiring -- I was 29 years old at the time, and it took 14 to 16 months" to recover, McNichol said. But, "I had to give it one more shot. I had to see if I could still pitch after the surgery. I didn't want to be asking, 'What if?' "

The left-handed McNichol is in his best season as a pro, successfully reinventing himself as a reliever. He is 5-1 and has allowed eight runs in 53 innings (1.36 ERA). Opponents are batting .176 against him.

After graduating from Gar-Field, he spent three years at James Madison University and was chosen in the second round of the 1995 draft by the Chicago Cubs. He earned a trip to the majors in September 1999.

He pitched in four games for the Cubs, starting two, and had a 6.75 ERA. And in what turned out to be his final major league start, McNichol allowed two runs and six hits in five innings, striking out seven and walking one in a 2-1 loss to the Phillies.

"My last game, I pitched well, and I almost won the game," McNichol said. "I know I can pitch successfully in the majors. . . . As long as I know [that], I'm going to keep trying."