When Devin Smeltzer finds himself in a tough spot on the pitching mound, the Bishop Eustace Prep School junior reaches back for some more velocity for his fastball.

Or he'll put some extra edge on his curveball.

Or he'll summon the knuckleball that he throws only in special situations.

But Smeltzer, 17, who is one of the state's best high school baseball players for one of the state's best teams, has a unique perspective on his most challenging moments in the competitive arena.

He said he draws most of his strength in times of adversity from the memory of his "lowest moment," when he was 10 years old and weighed 53 pounds after losing nearly 30 pounds from the effects of chemotherapy and radiation.

"I used to lay in my hospital bed and think about baseball," said Smeltzer, who was diagnosed with pelvic rhabdomyosarcoma about six weeks before his 10th birthday. "Besides my family and friends, baseball is the only way I got through it.

"It changed my perspective. I love baseball. It's everything to me. But after what I went through, I know I can handle anything that happens to me on the baseball field."

Smeltzer is an ace pitcher and standout centerfielder for a Bishop Eustace team that has a 12-3 record and is ranked No. 2 in South Jersey by The Inquirer.

A lefthander with a live fastball and sharp curve, Smeltzer is 4-1 with a 1.93 ERA. He has allowed 12 hits in 251/3 innings and struck out 40, with 12 walks.

At the plate, Smeltzer is batting .370 as the No. 3 hitter in the lineup. He's also a top defensive player with the speed to cover a lot of ground in the outfield.

"He's a complete player," Eustace coach Sam Tropiano said. "He's gifted, but he always wants to get better. He has a passion for the game that you don't often see."

Smeltzer has taken the South Jersey high school baseball scene by storm. He's a relative newcomer to the varsity level, as he played in just a handful of games as a sophomore at Bishop Eustace because he had to sit out the first 30 days as a transfer student from Eastern High.

Paul VI coach Pat Fisher, whose team is a rival of Bishop Eustace's in both Olympic Conference National Division and Non-Public South A competition, marvels at Smeltzer's emergence as such a dominant force.

Fisher was Smeltzer's coach when the youngster was a member of the South Jersey Young Guns, an AAU travel team, during some of the most debilitating times of his treatment.

"People throw around the term 'special kid' so much," Fisher said. "But when it comes to Devin Smeltzer, 'special kid' doesn't begin to cover it.

"I've never seen a kid 9-10-11 years old fight for his life, and then come out on the baseball field and compete the way Devin did."

Smeltzer was diagnosed with cancer in August 2005, according to his parents, Tim and Chris. At the time, Devin had been experiencing some issues with frequent urination.

"We had him to the doctors a couple of times," Chris Smeltzer said. "They were thinking it was a bladder infection."

Tim Smeltzer said a friend with the Gibbsboro-Voorhees Athletic Association got the family in touch with Robert Steckler, a Voorhees resident who is a pediatric urologist at St. Christopher's Hospital for Children in Philadelphia.

"We went over on a Friday, and he was supposed to pitch that night in the championship game of a 9-year-old tournament," Tim Smeltzer said. "But he never left."

Through a biopsy and other tests, doctors determined that Devin Smeltzer had a cancerous growth in his pelvic area. He almost immediately began treatment.

"I wasn't afraid as much as I was pissed off at the world," Smeltzer said. "I was so frustrated."

His parents said Smeltzer became a favorite of doctors and nurses at the hospital. They recall walking into the building time and again and seeing their son sitting on a blanket on the floor, playing with a two-year-old girl with leukemia.

"Even though he was a kid himself, he wanted to help other kids," Chris Smeltzer said.

On another occasion, Chris Smeltzer said, a nurse at the hospital asked if Devin would speak with a family whose young child was dealing with a serious illness.

"I saw a lot of kids go in and out of there," Devin Smeltzer said of St. Christopher's. "I lost a lot of friends. I would 100-percent do anything for anybody to give them hope.

"I would tell anybody, 'Keep fighting. Don't give up hope. You can beat this.' "

Gregory Halligan, a pediatric oncologist at St. Christopher's, said Smeltzer gravitated toward the younger patients.

"He was a little older, and he would interact incredibly well with the younger kids," Halligan said. "He wasn't a typical, egocentric 12-year-old. He never complained about treatment, never complained about pain."

During his fourth-grade year, Smeltzer was home-schooled because the chemotherapy and radiation made him susceptible to infection. But doctors allowed him to play baseball, since the activity was outside.

"They said, 'As much as he can do, let him do,' " Chris Smeltzer said.

Halligan said Smeltzer often had just one question for him.

"He always wanted to know, 'When can I go back to baseball?' " Halligan said. "It's very gratifying to see one of our patients doing so well and pursue his passion. He's never wavered from baseball through everything."

Fisher recalled one tournament in Pennsylvania in which Smeltzer played while wearing a bandanna after he had lost his hair.

"I deal with a lot of young fathers who think their kid is going to be a major-league baseball player," Fisher said. "In this case, I had a young father who wanted his kid to play baseball because he didn't know how long he was going to live.

"He must have been three or four days out of chemo, and Tim was like, 'Can you get him in? I don't know how much baseball he's going to be able to play.' "

Fisher believes Smeltzer's experiences have altered his perspective.

"He looks at life a lot different than you and I," Fisher said. "Pressure? On the baseball field? Not for him. What he has been able to accomplish, it's an amazing testament to his character."

Tim Smeltzer thinks baseball was instrumental in his son's recovery.

"Baseball was his only normalcy," Tim Smeltzer said. "It let him go outside and be a normal kid."

Smeltzer underwent intensive treatment for a little more than a year, then gradually was weaned off medication. In December, he was declared to be "officially cured" - under the standards of the American Cancer Association - as he had gone five years without treatment.

Halligan said Smeltzer still has "some side effects" from his ordeal, although they are "minimal."

Smeltzer plans to go south for college. He has scholarship offers from South Carolina and Florida Gulf Coast, two powerful NCAA Division I programs.

He said his dream is to play major-league baseball. In that sense, he's typical of most teenage stars.

But he's different, too.

"I guess I had to grow up fast," Smeltzer said. "I experienced some things that a 10-year-old shouldn't have to face, and it matured me.

"My life has been at stake. That gives you a unique perspective.

"I play baseball as hard as I can. I live for it. But I understand because of what I've been through that there are more important things."