Mariners’ Castillo ready to embrace raucous Rogers Centre: ‘He wants to be the guy’

Seattle Mariners starting pitcher Luis Castillo throws during the first inning of a baseball game against the Kansas City Royals. (Charlie Riedel/AP)

TORONTO – Luis Castillo has made one career post-season start and it was under the strangest of circumstances.

There were no fans at Truist Park in Atlanta on Oct. 1, 2020, when the Braves hosted Castillo’s Cincinnati Reds for the NL wild-card series.

That was, of course, due to pandemic restrictions. And while the right-hander pitched well enough — allowing one run on six hits over 5.1 innings in the loss — the lack of noise was something he says he actually missed.

That won’t be a problem on Friday afternoon when Castillo takes the mound for the Seattle Mariners in Game 1 of their wild-card series against the Toronto Blue Jays. Rogers Centre is expected to house a sell-out crowd that’s gained a reputation for producing one of the more loud and fervent atmospheres in the league.

Decibel levels will be high and the 29-year-old ace is going to relish it.

“The fans are very important to me,” Castillo said through interpreter Freddy Llanos during his media availability on Thursday at Rogers Centre. “The cheering and the noise is something that I really feed off. It’s something that gives me a little more energy, a little more something when I’m on the mound.”

Castillo was acquired by the Mariners before the July trade deadline in a shrewd move that further bolstered the club’s pitching staff, which has been a clear strength. The impetus to land the sought-after all-star from the Reds was so he could pitch in situations just like the one he’ll encounter Friday when he faces off against Blue Jays counterpart Alek Manaoh.

On paper, it’s a dream pitching matchup and if Castillo can suffocate the Blue Jays’ offence and notch a win for Seattle, the visitors would be in the driver’s seat of this best-of-three series.

“Any manager in this game understands the value of high-end starting pitching,” said Mariners skipper Scott Servais. “It just gives you a chance to win every night and that’s what Luis does. He’s got the ability to shut down any lineup on any given night with his stuff. It’s not just stuff — he throws hard and has great movement — it’s the competitiveness behind that. He wants to be the guy. He relishes that. He enjoys it.”

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Castillo’s first start for his new club came on Aug. 3 in front of 42,169 people at Yankee Stadium in New York. He outpitched Gerrit Cole, striking out eight Yankees over 6.2 innings to earn the W.

He made his next start less than a week later and bested himself. Facing the Yankees again, this time in front of a big crowd at Seattle’s T-Mobile Park, he surrendered just three hits over eight scoreless innings. 

“He likes the high-end competition and he’s certainly got the ability to go out and execute a game plan and keep his emotions in check along the way, which is really important,” said Servais.

Save for a few rocky starts in September, Castillo has lived up to expectations for the Mariners. He posted a 3.17 ERA and 2.91 FIP over 11 starts since the trade, striking out 77 batters and walking 17 across 65.1 innings.

Right-handed batters slashed just .217/.272/.317 against him this season, and that’s something to pay attention to given that the Blue Jays’ lineup features few lefties.

Castillo, who stands at six-foot-two and 200 pounds, relies on four pitches ­— a four-seam fastball that sits at 97.1 mph is the headliner and is accompanied by a sinker, changeup and slider. 

Servais believes Castillo’s stuff has gotten better over past few months, and while that’s certainly wowed the organization, it’s his demeanour that has stood out to Jerry Dipoto, Mariners president of baseball operations.

“You would never know when you’re around Luis if he’s hot or cold. You would never know if he’s up by five or down by five,” Dipoto said. “I think that is a crucial truth among the ace-type starters. That kind of ‘buck-stops-here’ mentality. And he brings that to the table every day. He’s a great teammate. He’s a quality person. And I love the fact that he rides an even keel. There seems to be no peaks and valleys with Luis.”

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Castillo goes by the nickname La Piedra, which translates to “The Rock” from Spanish. It’s partly derived from the fact that his grandmother put a stone on his mom’s forehead while she went into labour with him to reduce her pain.

“He brings stability,” said Dipoto. “And I think the fact that he goes by La Piedro, The Rock, is representative of how he operates.”

That could serve Castillo well during Friday’s night raucous atmosphere. He pitched against the Blue Jays this past May as a member of the Reds, but the right-hander said he isn’t going to draw much from that outing that saw him tagged with the loss after allowing two runs on seven hits over six innings.

This occasion will be a whole, new beast.

“It’s a different game,” said Castillo. “Last time I was here, it was a regular-season game. Now, it’s the post-season, where confidence can play an important role here.

“When I go up on that mound, I’m very confident. My mind is always positive. So, I’m going to treat it as a normal game. Go up there, keep a positive mindset and just do my job.”

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