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Casilla thrilled to get fresh start

June 24, 2007|From the Associated Press

OAKLAND — Santiago Casilla was 19 when he became Jairo Garcia.

That's typically too old to attract attention from the baseball scouts looking to sign top young players in the Dominican Republic. So he took the name and birth certificate of a friend who's nearly three years younger. And for the next five seasons, Casilla lived a lie.

"When Americans come to the Dominican Republic, they like young guys," he said. "They're not going to sign guys who are too old."

It was an act of desperation he now regrets, but at the time it seemed like the only way to achieve his dream of pitching in the major leagues. It wasn't even his idea, though Casilla won't say who suggested it.

The Oakland Athletics didn't know the hard-throwing right-hander they'd signed as a non-drafted free agent back in January 2000 wasn't Jairo Garcia. Not until he finally decided to tell the team through his agent two years ago.

When he returned last season as Casilla, many wondered about the A's new pitching prospect. But to his teammates, he was always Willie -- his nickname since childhood.

"Willie Santiago Jairo Garcia Casilla," joked David Forst, the A's assistant general manager.

Casilla is far from the first baseball player to fake his age or name to get a foot in the door, though Major League Baseball says the problem has lessened now that visas and other documentation are scrutinized more closely following the Sept. 11 attacks.

"There were a number of cases," said MLB spokesman Pat Courtney. "It was an issue. But after a situation like 9/11, there was an added emphasis from the State Department and others to make sure visas all matched up."

Casilla wants to forget it all now and reestablish himself under his given name. He asked for forgiveness during daily trips to church back home.

The A's have already all but forgotten because Casilla is pitching well at a time their beat-up bullpen needs a huge boost from his strong right arm. Casilla locates his fastball well, has a reliable slider as an out pitch and an effective changeup.

"It certainly changes what you ultimately think his upside would be," Forst said. "How much growth is left for a 26-year-old or a 23-year-old is pretty significant. At the same time, he was a guy who had been throwing 94 [mph] and had some success. He was still a major league prospect."

Casilla turns 27 on July 25. Jairo Garcia turned 24 on March 7.

Casilla has been near-perfect since Oakland called him up from triple-A Sacramento on June 3.

In his first 10 outings and heading into a weekend interleague series with the New York Mets at Shea Stadium, he hadn't given up a run over 12 1/3 innings, had stranded all seven of his inherited baserunners and saved two games in two opportunities. He also held opponents to a .122 batting average (five for 41) with 14 strikeouts and just two walks.

Casilla entered with the bases loaded and two out in the eighth inning against Cincinnati on Tuesday night and got Brandon Phillips on a called third strike to escape the jam. He struck out the side in the ninth after giving up Ken Griffey Jr.'s infield single that glanced off Casilla's glove, and the pitcher pumped his fist as he hustled off the mound.

Casilla has reason to celebrate.

He has been a bit of a hard-luck case, making all of nine appearances in the majors the last three years and seeing his 2006 season cut short because of a strained throwing shoulder that ended his campaign last June 21.

"It's going well and I'm very happy," Casilla said during an interview conducted mostly in Spanish. "Before, I thought I could play here and just waited for my opportunity."

Last year, after his name change, Casilla arrived almost a month late for spring training and was sent straight to minor league camp.

Forst described the delay as a "homeland security issue" because the pitcher had been in the country previously under the other name.

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