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Dove flying high at Cardinals camp

Prospect Dove flying high at Cardinals camp

JUPITER, Fla. -- Right-handed prospect Dennis Dove, who spent most of last year in the Class A Florida State League, is pitching so well that it's making Cardinals pitching coach Dave Duncan giddy.

Asked about Dove's latest performance, a dominating three-up, three-down show against the Dodgers on Thursday, the normally stoic Duncan decided to have some fun with reporters.

"I think we're probably going to send him out tomorrow," Duncan said, without a hint of humor. "You can't pitch like that in the big leagues, like he did today."

After a beat, he delivered the punch line:

"That's too good. We don't like those guys that throw 95, 96."

Dove has made quite an impression in his first big league camp, throwing hard with downward movement and command. He struck out two of the three batters he faced on Thursday, pitching at 93-94 mph and topping out at 97. He gets that velocity on a sinking, two-seam fastball, which boosts his stock with Duncan.

The last out on Thursday was a feeble popup to the right side by right-handed hitter Choo Freeman, who was way behind on a fastball. The only contact against Dove, even foul balls was of that variety. Hitters simply couldn't catch up to him.

It's been that way ever since Dove started pitching in relief, right about this time last year.

"As a starter, I was always at high pitch counts early in the game," he said. "And this has given me an opportunity to go right at guys and let it fly."

A year ago, Dove came to Minor League camp as a former high draft pick, but a flagging prospect. He'd spent parts of three years in the system but hadn't gotten out of Class A.

So the organization approached him about moving from starting to the bullpen. His arm was, and is, far too good to give up on.

"There aren't very many guys that we've seen come through that throw that hard, period," said Mark Riggins, the Cardinals' Minor League pitching coordinator and the man who approached Dove about pitching in relief. "And to have movement with that, those are the elite. Now he's got to throw strikes with it, and command it, and command a breaking ball."

Dove embraced the change, and success followed immediately. He overwhelmed Florida State League hitters with 56 strikeouts and 13 walks in 51 1/3 innings.

"Instead of nitpicking and trying to make the perfect pitch, the outside corner (on the) black, I'm trying to go for contact down in the zone," he said.

"Get outs as quick as possible. Let them put it in play and let my defense do the work. Early in my career I was trying to strike everybody out, going for the glory numbers instead of just getting outs any way I could get them out."

For a bullpen with at most one right-handed strikeout artist, and nobody who lights up the radar gun in the mid-90s, Dove presents an intriguing option. Even if he's pitching to contact, he has the kind of stuff that can get strikeouts just the same.

Such considerations were hard to imagine even four weeks ago, at the start of Spring Training. Dove put up an 8.79 ERA in his first taste of Double-A last year. But he's mowed down hitters in Spring Training just like he did at Class A Palm Beach last year, and like he did in a stint in the Arizona Fall League.

If Dove is ready -- and that's a big if -- there's no one else like him in the St. Louis relief corps.

"That's why we're going to keep looking at him," Duncan said. "If we look at him and he pitches the way he did today, then you've got to keep him under consideration."

Though Dove struggled in his introduction to Double-A -- a result, he says, of some lack of focus and too many pitches up in the strike zone -- he thrived in the hitter-friendly AFL. His heat, combined with a developing breaking ball, helped him put up a 1.93 ERA with seven Ks and four walks in 9 1/3 innings.

"When a guy is out there for one or two innings, he's not overexposed," Riggins said. "If we expect him to start, he's expected to go six innings. And that command is not good enough to throw the six or seven innings and keep us in a ballgame. If he comes out there and lets it fly for one or two innings, they can't get a good read on it and they'll swing at more pitches and it just helps the value of the kid."

Over the coming days and perhaps weeks, the Cardinals will try to find out more about how Dove's stuff and command stack up against Major League hitters. Rather than appearing at the end of games, against players likely headed to Double-A, he may see some innings earlier in the contests.

Additionally, he'll have to deal with the knowledge that he's being watched, and taken seriously. And that could be as difficult as anything.

"He's going to start recognizing what the situation is, and start feeling that too," Duncan said. "If he handles that, that's a plus for him."

Dove closed out a win -- a Spring Training win, but a win just the same -- against the Braves on Monday. That was a big deal for the native of Tifton, Ga.

"I'm from Georgia. I grew up a huge Braves fan," he said. "That was kind of weird, going out there in that situation against those guys."

It was even weirder since Dove didn't even close games for Palm Beach in 2006. In a bullpen loaded with promising young pitchers, he served as the right-handed setup man to sidearmer Mike Sillman.

Yet Sillman, slated to close games for Double-A Springfield this year, has already been sent to Minor League camp. Dove is still around.

"I just wanted to come here and open some eyes," he said. "That was my plan."

That much, he has absolutely accomplished already.

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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