With Mariners’ playoff hopes in balance, Luis Castillo takes the mound with a smile

Then-Mariners catcher Curt Casali was still kicking himself for the changeup he’d asked his starting pitcher, Luis Castillo, to throw a couple of batters earlier.

Castillo’s changeup has been one of the best pitches in the game for years, and maybe it was muscle memory that Casali called it, but he immediately knew it was wrong even before Tony Kemp crushed it for a three-run homer to give Oakland a 3-1 lead over the Mariners last September.

When Casali got to the mound, he started to apologize to Castillo.

“I felt terrible. I knew I called the wrong pitch,” said Casali, now back with the Reds after stints with the Giants and Mariners. “He’s like, ‘It’s OK. F— it.’

“That’s the mantra he lives by.”

Casali first caught Castillo in 2018 when both were with the Reds, but even to him, that level of shrug-it-off, keep-moving-forward was a little surprising. It wasn’t that he hadn’t seen Castillo deal with a loss or a home run before — but this was in the heat of a pennant race when things get more intense and the stakes are higher.

To Castillo, though, it’s all still a baseball game — when it comes down to it, there’s no difference in the game itself between the Cactus League and the playoffs.

“I’ve always been like that my entire career, because if I get frustrated or show a lot of emotion, it’s not going to do anything to make it better,” Castillo said earlier this month, according to Mariners team translator Freddy Llanos. “All I can do is just stay positive.”

When he was sent to the Mariners a year ago, Castillo was the top starter on the market, the ace Seattle was looking to put them over the top to get to their first postseason appearance in 21 years. Castillo went 4-2 with a 3.17 ERA in 11 starts with the Mariners after his trade and this year is 14-8 with a 3.20 ERA, even after giving up five runs in six innings in a key loss to the Astros on Monday.

Now Castillo is set to start Saturday against the Texas Rangers with his team’s playoff hopes on the line. Some pitchers might take that last bad outing into this next one. With Castillo, everyone is certain that won’t be an issue.

“You watch him after every inning and no matter if he gives up five runs or strikes out the side, he pats his glove and looks up to the sky and points,” said former teammate Kyle Farmer, now with the Twins, who faced Castillo for the first time in July. “You don’t really see many guys do that when they do poorly, you see it when they’re going well. He’s the same person every day. I think he’s just happy to be here.”

“Happy to be here,” is usually an insult, it means someone doesn’t care about performing, they’re just happy to be in the big leagues and collecting a paycheck. Perhaps with Castillo, it’s more accurate to simply say, “He’s happy.”

“I’m just trying to make people smile and laugh, that’s who I am,” Castillo said.

That comes from his parents. A native of the Dominican Republic, Castillo said his parents instilled in him to have a positive attitude, no matter his circumstances.

That attitude has been reinforced by some of the legends of the Dominican Republic, all of whom he’s gotten to know as he’s ascended to similarly revered status: Pedro Martínez, Bartolo Colón and Juan Marichal.

“Obviously, I didn’t get to see Juan Marichal pitch, but I have gotten to know him,” Castillo said. “These are guys that good or bad, they still had the same face.”

While some pitchers wear a scowl, Castillo’s is a smile. When Farmer singled off of him earlier this year in their first-ever matchup, the veteran looked to the mound and saw Castillo smiling back at him.

“Baseball’s a game of failure, but I think Luis just plays it like it’s fun, it’s cool,” Farmer said. “Of course, he throws 99, has a sinker from hell, a changeup from hell and a decent slider … I’d feel the same way, too.”

Mariners third baseman Eugenio Suárez first met Castillo in spring training of 2017 after the Reds acquired him from the Marlins.

Before joining the Mariners, Luis Castillo excelled for the Reds. (Gary Vasquez / USA Today)

Suárez had become the Reds’ starting third baseman the year before and noticed right away that he had a kindred spirit in Castillo. Suárez is known for his near-constant refrain of “good vibes only.”

“Those two are the same — one is just Dominican and the other Venezuelan,” said Mariners outfielder Julio Rodríguez.

Rodríguez said it’s been good as a younger player to watch those two go about their business and the joy with which they play.

“Sometimes you’re going to have bad times and how you navigate that and how you can come out of that is what’s going to separate you from the rest,” Rodríguez said.

It was that attitude that led Suárez to believe Castillo was going to be, in his words, “a superstar.” Well, and maybe what he saw in live batting practice.

“He’s always calm, he’s always the same guy, no matter what happened on the mound,” Suárez said. “I think to be like that, it’s more enjoyable, you enjoy the game and you don’t take it home. He always says to me, ‘This game has given me everything, why would I be mad?’ I feel the same way. This game’s given us everything. I feel like the best version of me as a player is when I’m happy.”

When all of Major League Baseball’s media interactions were done on Zoom in 2020 and 2021, Suárez would wear his “Good Vibes Only” shirt for most of his Zoom sessions and would end those Zoom calls by repeating the phrase. Castillo had his own catchphrase during those video interviews, telling Reds sideline reporter Jim Day, “Beat it, nerd!” That phrase was usually punctuated with the motion that umpires use when ejecting a manager. Former Reds outfielder Billy Hamilton used to say the same thing to Day and after he left, Castillo thought it was funny and continued the tradition.

Earlier this month when the Mariners came to Cincinnati, Castillo spoke to a group of Cincinnati-based reporters in the visitor’s dugout before the first game of the series. After taping a happy birthday video for Joey Votto, the press conference broke up and Castillo added, “Beat it nerd!” to Day.

“He did it every time,” Day said. “It didn’t matter if he pitched a shutout or got shelled. Same thing. I wish I had a little bit of that in me.”

Even after seeing Castillo’s line against the Astros earlier this week, Casali said he was certain there was no pitcher the players in Seattle would want on the mound in the next big series than Castillo.

“I think he’s cementing himself as one of the best pitchers of this generation,” Casali said. “He’s as consistent as you could ever want and as devastating as you could ever want. What other combination would you rather have? And he’s just a great guy to be around.”

(Top photo of Luis Castillo: Steph Chambers / Getty Images)

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