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Dropping down has Sillman looking up

Dropping down has Sillman looking up

JUPITER, Fla. -- By his own account, Mike Sillman was "just another right-handed guy in the bullpen" for most of his college career. Then he tried throwing sidearm.

As Sillman worked to find just the right angle to deliver the ball, he noticed that hitters were having a tougher time with him. Within a year he was closing games for the powerhouse program at the University of Nebraska.

The Cardinals took him in the 21st round of the 2004 First-Year Player Draft, and Sillman didn't slow down. In his second pro season, he saved 22 games for Class A Quad Cities. Last year, he was absolutely dominant for Class A Palm Beach, leading the Florida State League in appearances, games finished and saves while averaging more than 1.5 strikeouts per inning pitched.

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"Last year, everything really came together," said Sillman, 25, who is in Major League camp for the first time. "It was my third year throwing that way. I started throwing the winter of my junior year of college. Last year was my third year, and things started panning out for me. I felt more comfortable with what changes I needed to make when things are going wrong."

That hasn't always been easy. When the coaching staff at Nebraska suggested that Sillman drop down, they did so with a caveat -- we won't be able to help you iron things out when you get off-kilter.

"I was just another right-handed guy in the bullpen in college," he said. "And the pitching coach said, 'Hey, I think you're athletic enough to try this out. If it works, it works. If not, you're not going to be losing a whole lot of playing time.' So I tried it out.

"He told me he [didn't] know how to coach it, but to try it out and find something that's comfortable. I started way down and I couldn't do anything. So I started coming a little higher until I got comfortable with it. And I'm here today because of it."

Sillman is expected to move to Double-A Springfield for 2007, where he'll likely serve as the closer for the S-Cards. He's probably two years away from St. Louis, but in his first spring with the big club, he's caught the eye of pitching coach Dave Duncan -- not a bad guy to impress.

"He's an interesting guy," Duncan said. "He's got a unique style, and he's had some success with it. He's still a very young, inexperienced pitcher, but he's intriguing."

And Duncan isn't even put off by the funky delivery.

"The mechanics are pretty much all the same, except the body position is different," Duncan said. "If you were to take him and stand him up and have him throw, it would be almost identical to what you see with anybody else.

"You still look for the same body positions, except you tilt your head."

Sillman made his Spring Training debut in the Cards' Grapefruit League opener against the Marlins on Wednesday, and he came through it well. A flyout, a popup, a single and a groundout added up to a scoreless inning.

It helped that he's on familiar ground. Sillman pitched at Roger Dean Stadium as a member of the Palm Beach Cardinals, so it's a bit like coming home.

But not exactly.

"At first you're kind of star-struck, and you don't know what to do," he said. "Now, a couple weeks into it, you know where your place is and you can get a lot more comfortable. We've got a lot of good guys here, so that made it easier."

For the moment, while he's in Major League camp, he's "just another right-handed guy" again. But if Sillman keeps up what he's doing, he'll be much more than that one day.

Matthew Leach is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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