OAKLAND, Calif. (AP) -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 re-establish 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 change-up.
``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 allowed 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 (5-for-41) with 14 strikeouts and just two walks.
Casilla entered with the bases loaded and two outs 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 allowing 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's been a bit of a hard-luck case, making all of nine appearances in the majors the past 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.
While the A's are benefiting from Casilla's consistency now, the news about his true identity initially concerned them. Oakland's director of Latin American operations, Raymond Abreu, heard from Casilla's agent and then contacted director of player development Keith Lieppman, who immediately sent out an e-mail to the A's brass.
``Guys will do anything to get an opportunity here,'' said manager Bob Geren, also Casilla's skipper during winter ball two years ago when he went back to his real name. ``He's not the only one. It didn't hurt him. He's still young. A 26-year-old who throws 94 or a 24-year-old who throws 94, there's not much difference. Look at Roger Clemens now.''
Casilla wasted no time showing the A's he had potential.
In his first professional season in 2000, he went 6-2 with a 3.26 ERA in 11 appearances and 10 starts in the Dominican Summer League - holding opponents to a .189 batting average.
By 2004, he had jumped from Class-A Kane County to Triple-A Sacramento and then the majors, but he lasted just four outings with Oakland after giving up eight earned runs on five hits with three home runs while walking nine batters in all of 5 2-3 innings.
During the '05 season, his final year as Garcia, he made three appearances for the A's.
That winter, Geren managed Casilla in winter ball in the Dominican Republic. A's minor league pitching instructor Ron Romanick was the pitching coach on a team that also included major league pitchers Francisco Cordero, Rafael Soriano, Julio Mateo and Fernando Rodney.
Geren praised Casilla for his work ethic and dedication then, a time when many players take their share of days off to rest. Casilla showed up to work out in the gym every morning and didn't miss a road trip. That was just the start of his transformation from Jairo Garcia.
``For him, I'm sure that was kind of an unfortunate situation,'' Oakland pitching coach Curt Young said. ``But in our eyes, you kind of have respect for what he was trying to do. You're at a point where baseball is going to be your life and you'll do anything.''
On Tuesday, Casilla spent some time in the dugout before a game with 13 Spanish-speaking sixth- and seventh-graders from Oakland, part of the ``A's Amigos'' program. Both the pitcher and kids laughed and smiled throughout the session.
Casilla said his faith got him through the tough times, and he's pleased he ultimately made the choice to tell the A's the truth.
``It's in the past,'' he said. ``I want to do everything as Casilla. That's it. I feel badly about it. I'm happy now, and I feel clean.''

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