Mike O'Connor turned few heads during his first three years as a relief pitcher for George Washington University. Through his junior year his career ERA was 6.17.

A year later, O'Connor became a much better pitcher and, surprisingly, a professional prospect. Montreal picked the lefthander in the seventh round of the 2002 draft and he continues to impress as he moves up the ranks of the Expos' minor leagues. This year, at Class A Brevard County in Florida, O'Connor is a starting pitcher with a 7-7 record and a 4.03 ERA.

After O'Connor's early struggles at GW, his ERA dropped to almost 2.00 in the spring of 2002 -- his senior season -- and his fastball improved to nearly 90 mph.

"That year I don't feel like I did that much different, except I was definitely more comfortable," said O'Connor, who is from Ellicott City and went to Mount St. Joseph in Baltimore. "The biggest difference was throwing two miles an hour faster. There's a lot of people out there throwing 85 [miles per hour], and you need to throw harder to separate yourself from all those guys."

The increase in velocity helped O'Connor become a strikeout pitcher as a pro. He struck out 66 batters in 43 innings at short-season Class A Vermont in 2002 (13.8 strikeouts/nine innings), a trend that continued last year at less-advanced Class A Savannah (10.6).

After success in his first two professional seasons, the Expos converted O'Connor into a starting pitcher. He threw just 70 innings last season at Savannah. And although O'Connor has already thrown 87 this season, he is still striking out more than a batter each inning (9.2/nine innings).

"It took me about a month to get used to throwing more innings, and I had to learn how to throw from the windup again," O'Connor said. "Even if starting doesn't work out in the long run, it's going to help me as a pitcher."