One thing Eric Schmitt has learned in his baseball career is that when you reach new heights, there is always another step in the way.

After a steady rise through minor league baseball in the years since graduating from Fairfax's W.T. Woodson High in 1996, Schmitt is now a starting pitcher for the Columbus Clippers, the New York Yankees' Class AAA affiliate.

"There's always a higher level -- there's always one more to go," Schmitt said. "Each game's important, each league is important. When I get to Yankee Stadium, then I'll know I've made it."

Schmitt was an All-Met for Woodson in 1996, when the Cavaliers were runners-up in the Northern Region and advanced to the Virginia AAA quarterfinals. The day of the quarterfinal, in which Schmitt pitched and the Cavaliers lost to Gar-Field, Schmitt was chosen in the 18th round of the major league draft by the New York Mets. Schmitt remembers that day, though, for a slightly different reason.

"That was the last time I ever swung a bat in a game," Schmitt said.

Schmitt opted for college, and had four strong years with Wake Forest, finishing with a 23-3 record. He expected to be drafted after his junior season, but three weeks before the draft he tore a ligament in his elbow and went unchosen.

After his senior season, he was picked in the 25th round by the Yankees. His elbow injury worsened after a year in the minors and he required ligament replacement surgery in late 2000. He returned in 2001 and has been climbing through the minors since. This season, Schmitt was sidelined for the first month with a buildup of scar tissue in his elbow, and he has struggled to get back to form, posting a 6.14 ERA.

He expects to play in the Arizona Fall League this summer to make up for the lost month.

"I feel like I haven't gotten into a groove yet, so Arizona will be good," Schmitt said. "It's encouraging, because usually the guys who go there either end up on the 40-man roster or [are taken in the Rule V draft]. I'm just trying to do what I have to do to make it to the next level."