ARLINGTON -- Diego Castillo ran onto the field in the ninth inning of Game 2 of the World Series, knowing he was close to achieving one of his lifelong dreams. Growing up in Cabrera, a small town in the Dominican Republic, Castillo always dreamed of pitching in the big leagues, and eventually, in the World Series.
As he got to the mound, Castillo took a deep breath, had a quick chat with catcher Mike Zunino and took a peek at the scattered crowd inside Globe Life Field. Castillo needed just three pitches to strike out Chris Taylor, becoming the first Rays pitcher to record a save in a World Series game.
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“His mentality for a relatively young pitcher is really impressive,” said Rays manager Kevin Cash. “He does not get caught up in the stress of the game, the intensity of the game. He just makes pitches.”
The reason the Rays keep trotting out Castillo in high-leverage situations is because the 26-year-old right-hander is one of the best relievers in the Majors, despite not getting much recognition. Castillo posted a 1.66 ERA in 22 appearances this season and has been just as dominant in the postseason, allowing one earned run in eight appearances. His sinker-slider combination is one of the best in the league, and the numbers reflect that.
Opponents had a .087 average against Castillo’s slider this season, and his 51.2 whiff rate ranked in the 96th percentile in the Majors. Combine his power slider with a sinker that reaches 99 mph and it’s easy to see why hitters struggle to make hard contact against Castillo.
“That’s a pretty special combination,” Cash said.
Even with the talent he possesses, it would be normal for Castillo to feel pressure in certain situations, especially the ninth inning of a World Series game, but that pales in comparison to the challenges he has overcome to get here.
Castillo is the second youngest of 10 siblings. Growing up in a family that size is not easy, and it’s especially challenging when you consider that Castillo’s family didn’t have much money in a tourist-friendly but impoverished area of the Dominican Republic.
To try to help his family, Castillo worked countless jobs as a child. He helped his father in the rice fields. He helped construction workers by mixing cement, carrying buckets of water and moving blocks around. Castillo would also go to the ocean and capture about 100 betta fish, which he would then sell for two pesos apiece. Convert that into U.S. dollars, and it comes out to about $4.
“That’s not a lot of money, but it helped my family have food for a day,” Castillo told MLB.com in Spanish. “The only thing I didn’t do was the bad stuff, thankfully. I did a lot of things because we had such a big family and we all had to work in order to find our next meal.”
As he worked those hard-labor jobs, Castillo always had a passion for baseball. It was a passion sparked by his dad and older brothers. His brothers played baseball growing up, but none were able to sign with a Major League club. His dad played softball and was the one who encouraged Castillo to follow his dream after high school.
“That inspired me to play baseball,” Castillo said. “We also all saw that playing baseball was a possible way to help my family, so it was a combination of -- I really love playing it, but it’s something that can help my family. That’s when I started to give it 100 percent.”
Though Castillo began to dedicate himself to baseball, the journey wasn't easy. At 16, Castillo was throwing around 80 mph and not impressing scouts at showcases. When he was 18, his velocity was up to about 83 mph and he was encouraged to attend an academy in Santo Domingo -- about two hours from his hometown -- to continue his progression.
Once at the academy, Castillo saw his velocity tick up to about 90 mph -- still not what the scouts wanted to see, but there was enough progress to keep him on the radar. But as he began to get closer to reaching his full potential, Castillo ran into another hurdle.
One of the highly regarded prospects at the academy slammed a door on Castillo, causing it to graze his forehead and nose. An upset Castillo confronted him and the two players had to be separated. While the incident didn’t escalate to a full-on fight, the academy sided with the prospect, kicking Castillo out.
As he made the two-hour trip back home, negative thoughts started to creep in. He was an unsigned 19-year-old pitcher at the time, which is often considered old by international signing standards. Castillo feared that his dream of professional baseball would not come true.
“I just cried on my way back home,” Castillo said. “In the Dominican Republic, they usually sign you at 16 or 17 years old, but when you get to 19 or 20 years old, a lot of doors close. It was hard at the time.”
Castillo gave himself a couple of days to reflect, then went back to pursuing his dream. He leaned on his old friends, who encouraged him to keep working. Over the next few months, Castillo was running miles by the beach and growing into his bulky frame. That resulted in Castillo's velocity increasing to 96 mph as he approached his 20th birthday.
“Getting kicked out of the academy was a blessing from God,” Castillo said. “That gave me the opportunity to get back to my town and put in the necessary work to try and sign a contract. I think God sent that so I could leave that academy.”
Though Castillo was lighting up the radar gun, there was still the challenge of trying to find a team willing to sign a 20-year-old pitcher.
Luckily for Castillo, the struggles he went through led him to the Rays, who were having a tryout near his hometown. He showed up in a Yankees uniform because that was the only full uniform he had in his closet. Once he threw a pair of 96 mph fastballs, it didn’t matter what he was wearing -- the Rays were signing him. That same day in 2014, Castillo and the Rays agreed to a $64,000 contract.
“The slider was always the dominant pitch,” said Rays pitching coach Kyle Snyder, who was a coordinator in 2014. “He was always a strike thrower. He moved faster through our system than anybody that I’ve seen since I’ve been here. It’s one of the best sinkers in the game.”
Four years after signing with the Rays, Castillo made his big league debut against the Nationals in 2018 and has been a key part of the Tampa Bay bullpen ever since. When he made his debut, Castillo became the Rays’ first 20-year-old signee from Latin America to make his debut with Tampa Bay since at least 2008.
Now that he’s established himself at the big league level, Castillo said his goal is to help his hometown. He hopes to start a foundation later this year to help kids in his neighborhood with food, toys and baseball equipment. Ultimately, he hopes to build more housing for those in need.
Until then, the Rays are going to keep leaning on Castillo, who has turned out to be a one-of-a-kind find for an organization that prides itself on finding hidden gems.
“Probably as intense of a competitor as I’ve ever been around,” Snyder said. “He’s very faith-driven, very family-oriented. He loves to compete and loves to have the baseball in his hand.”
Juan Toribio covers the Rays for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter @juanctoribio.