It started out as a joke, really. When Tyler Mills took the mound last summer, he didn’t even have a pitcher’s glove with him.

He was a hitter.

But there he was last summer on the mound, pitching for the first time since high school.

“Each (start) got a little bit better and I hit 94 a couple of times,” Mills said of his summer. “The joke started becoming more of a reality. And then I came into the fall and started impressing some scouts and got talking to them. And then the dream just got closer and closer.”

A year later, nobody’s laughing. After being selected in the ninth round of the MLB Draft, Mills inked a deal on Monday with the St. Louis Cardinals and will forgo his final two years of college eligibility.

Mills begins play with the Johnson City Cardinals, the Cardinals’ rookie league affiliate located in Tennessee, on June 21. He expects to start off in the bullpen, although according to Mills, the organization said they would like him to start either this year or next to get the inexperienced right-hander some innings.

Although Mills has enough raw talent to warrant a top-10-round selection, last season was rocky at times. In 19 appearances, Mills went 2-4 with a 5.02 ERA, and was bounced from the rotation mid-season. Along with a team-leading 48 strikeouts, Mills raised some red flags with 30 walks, also a high mark for the Wolverines.

“When I was successful, even then I was still kind of a thrower,” Mills said. “Already in the first couple days, me and the pitching coach have been working on trying to get myself into having more of a feel for everything, and to get it to be more of an art instead of just go out and throw the ball as hard as I can.

“I don’t have a lot of experience, and I’ve made it very clear to the organization that I’m very open to learn new things, try things to get the most out of my arm and get a lot more consistency.”

The decision was harder than Mills expected. In addition to consulting with his family, he also talked with former Michigan players Ryan LaMarre, Alan Oaks, Chris Fetter, and Zach Putnam, all of whom are now playing in the minor leagues.

Ultimately, Mills decided that the move to the professional ranks was in his best interest. Mills, though, is still enrolled in classes at Michigan. After his season ends August 30, he will return to Ann Arbor to take a course load of 17 credits.

“It’s something I’ve always dreamed of,” said Mills. “I think it’s that belief in myself that no matter how bad things were, even last year when it seemed like baseball couldn’t possibly get any worse, but I just believed that I could make something happen.”

And Mills isn’t lying. Recently, his mother found a newspaper clipping dating back to Mills’ kindergarten or preschool years. In it the students listed what they wanted to be when they grew up.

Mills’ answer?

A professional baseball player, of course.

He wasn’t joking.

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