TORONTO – After striking out the side in the seventh inning in his seemingly effortless fashion, whipping triple-digit fastballs with terrifying movement past hitters, freezing them with knee-buckling sliders and mixing in a few shake-your-head change-ups just because he could, Luis Castillo flashed a grin, removing his hat and offering his trademark fist pump that looks like a celebratory uppercut.
This is why the Mariners made acquiring the 29-year-old right-hander their priority at the Major League Baseball trade deadline – this setting, this moment, this performance.
Always at ease on the mound regardless of the situation with a heartbeat that seems to remain at resting level, Castillo delivered the best postseason pitching performance in Mariners team history.
And this is an organization that had Randy Johnson.
Castillo became the first Mariners pitcher to toss seven-plus shutout innings in a postseason game, dominating and demoralizing a stacked Blue Jays lineup in the process, while leading the Mariners to a 4-0 victory in Game 1 of the American League wild-card series.
With the win, the Mariners are a victory from going to the American League Division Series and guaranteeing at least one postseason game at T-Mobile Park.
Left-hander Robbie Ray will get the start for Seattle against his former team, and Toronto is now forced to start right-hander Kevin Gausman, who eschewed an offer from the Mariners to replace Ray in the Blue Jays rotation.
“That’s how we have played all year long,” manager Scott Servais said. “We belong here. We really do. Our team believes it.”
The baseball world should start believing it after seeing Castillo’s dominance.
Castillo threw 7⅓ scoreless innings, allowing six hits with no walks, a hit batter and five strikeouts.
“The fans, the energy in that moment give me that little extra boost when I’m out there,” Castillo said through interpreter Freddy Llanos.
“Like I said before, whenever I go up in the mound, I’m going to take everything that I have in my heart and my body to give the best I can.”
When the trade was finalized and announced July 29, there was some lamentations that the Mariners gave up too much in prospect capital.
As Jerry Dipoto, Mariners president of baseball operations, admitted the feeling was “something more aggressive” than hurt to part with four prospects, including his top two shortstop prospects – Noelvi Marte and Edwin Arroyo.
But playoff performances mean more than prospect potential and future production.
“When you go to the trade deadline, you’re trying to acquire players that will get you over the hump, so to speak, or be difference makers,” Servais said. “They’re hard to find.”
When Castillo tossed up a pair of clunker outings against the A’s, there were some grumblings about whether he was really worth it, forgetting about his performances against the Yankees and Padres.
But in the bright lights and intense microscope of the postseason, he was at his best. Not since Felix Hernandez’s prime have the Mariners had a starting pitcher with the ability to overwhelm hitters like Castillo.
“I’m happy I don’t have to stand in the box and face that guy,” said Seattle’s Mitch Haniger. “It’s obviously really difficult. He’s been incredible. That’s why we were so happy we got them. He’s delivered every bit. He’s a killer on the mound.”
Given a 3-0 lead in the first inning, Castillo could be even more aggressive against the Blue Jays, using his video-game movement and four-pitch repertoire.
The Blue Jays had two prime opportunities to get to Castillo with their best hitters up. In the third, Vlad Guerrero Jr. stepped to the plate with runners on first and second with two outs. With a 0-1 count, Castillo fired a 98-mph sinker that started on the outer half of the plate and darted in on the hands of a swinging Guerrero. A pitch he thought he could drive was suddenly a weak pop fly to center.
Castillo featured a similar two-out situation in the fifth inning and the white-hot Bo Bichette at the plate. With a 0-2 count, Castillo went to that same sinker. The pitch looked destined for the middle of the plate until it ran inside about 4 inches off it. Bichette’s had committed to swinging and hit a softball ground ball to second.
“That movement is what happens when you throw the pitch with conviction and confidence and intensity,” Castillo said. “It’s something I’ve been working on throughout the years.”
Looking at Statcast data, the velocity on four of Castillo’s pitches was up 2 mph, up noticeably in spin rate and up to 4 inches in horizontal movement. He threw 14 fastballs that were 100 mph or higher.
As J.P. Crawford said, “Yeah, good luck with that.”
After retiring Whit Merrifield to start the eighth, Castillo let a 98-mph fastball ride up and in on George Springer. The ball struck Springer on the hand.
Not wanting to take any chances with Bichette and Guerrero facing Castillo for a fourth time, Servais went to his bullpen. He called on Andres Munoz to finish the inning. Throwing 93-mph sliders and 103-mph fastballs, Munoz got Bichette to fly out to right and Guerrero to ground out to shortstop to end the threat. Munoz returned for the ninth and completed the victory even after allowing a two-out hit.
In his news conference Wednesday afternoon before the game, the Blue Jays’ Alek Manoah was asked about the pressure of pitching in the first playoff game of his MLB career.
“I’ve had some coaches who have said pressure is what you put in your tires,” Manoah said.
Those “wise” words from his coaches weren’t necessarily correct. You actually put air in your tires and the pressure is the measured amount of inflated air.
For Manoah, pressure is what the Mariners put on him and the Blue Jays in the first, as he struggled to harness his adrenaline and emotions.
It was noticeable when he got up 0-2 to Julio Rodriguez. After Rodriguez fouled off a sinker that was supposed to be thrown low and away and ended up well above the strike zone, Manoah threw another fastball that rode up and in, hitting Rodriguez on his left hand, where he was wearing a protective pad.
After Ty France’s ground ball to first base moved to Rodriguez to second base, Eugenio Suarez took advantage of a 95-mph fastball left in the middle of the plate, lacing a double to right field to give Seattle a 1-0 lead.
“I just tried to use all the field, and I was ready to compete against Manoah,” Suarez said. “I know he likes that fastball, and I was ready to hit.”
As Rodriguez raced home, the earsplitting din of the 47,402 fans in attendance had been silenced, and the cheers from the Mariners dugouts and the fans intermittently dispersed throughout the stadium could be heard.
It brought Cal Raleigh to the plate. A week ago, he hit the biggest homer in recent Mariners history, a walk-off shot that clinched the team’s first playoff spot in 21 years.
That moment, which will be immortalized on highlight reels telling the Mariners history was the biggest of his career … until now.
Down 1-2 in the count, he worked his way back into the at-bat by refusing to chase two poor offerings from Manoah meant to get him to swing. Neither was close.
When Manoah left a 3-2 sinker in the middle of the plate at his belt, Raleigh crushed a homer similar to his week-ago walk-off. The towering blast stayed inside the right-field foul pole and landed in the second deck of stunned and silenced Blue Jays fans.
“Once we got that run in, I kind of took a deep breath, and I was, like, ‘We’re rolling. Geno got us going. Feels like normal,’ ” Raleigh said.
Where would this team be without the somewhat unexpected performances of Suarez and Raleigh? The Mariners would probably be watching the postseason for the 22nd straight season instead.
Manoah ended Seattle’s fun, getting Haniger to ground out to third and striking out Carlos Santana.
As he stalked off the mound. A disgusted Manoah knew that he might have turfed his team’s chances before they’d seen a pitch from Castillo.
As expected, Manoah settled in and find the command that made him one of the top pitchers in the American League. But Seattle picked up an key insurance run in the fifth. With one out, he hit Rodriguez with a pitch for the second time in the game. France followed with a single to right field and Rodriguez advanced to third base. Suarez drove in his second run of the game with soft bouncer that wouldn’t allow third baseman Matt Chapman to throw home or turn a double play. The Mariners led 4-0.
Manoah exited the game with two outs in the sixth, having allowed the four runs on just four hits with a walk, two hit batters and four strikeouts.
Manoah had allowed just four earned runs in his past six starts and 41 innings pitched in September.
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