Game 1 of the American League Championship Series had been played clean and tight until that eighth inning, when the Rays risked losing their late lead after Aaron Loup loaded the bases. Manager Kevin Cash lifted Loup for Castillo to face the scuffling Yuli Gurriel, and the Rays’ hard-throwing right-hander was in attack mode with his first -- and only -- pitch of the inning.
At 97 mph in on Gurriel’s hands, he grounded weakly up the middle to second baseman Brandon Lowe, who stepped on the bag and fired to first to escape the inning. This wasn’t just a major moment, it also allowed Cash to keep other top relievers Nick Anderson and Pete Fairbanks fresh for Game 2 on Monday.
“He is a stud,” Cash said after the win. “Just a remarkable performance. We really benefited with the double-play ball on one pitch. He was the one that was available between Nick, Pete and himself.”
Now that the ball is in the Rays' court, it sets them up to continue with the aggressive bullpen usage that pushed them over the top in their AL Division Series win over the Yankees, particularly in Game 5. Anderson gave the Rays 2 2/3 innings in that clinching game on Friday, needing 32 pitches, while Fairbanks threw two frames on 40 pitches. Come Monday, they’ll be fresh and ready to lead The Stable again.
What makes Castillo’s performance against the Astros even more impressive, though, is that he was also the one who closed out Game 5 of the ALDS behind Anderson and Fairbanks, his third appearance of that series.
“I think the job he did sums up his whole year,” said catcher Mike Zunino. “He stepped up big for us, coming in off throwing a lot of innings in big situations for us. We had an idea of who we’d be able to go to, but him coming in there and showing what he’s made of speaks a lot to what those guys in the bullpen have done for us all year.”
When Castillo arrived at Petco Park in San Diego on Monday afternoon, he expected to pitch. Forget that he’d thrown 29 pitches in two innings on Friday, because Saturday was an off-day and, to Castillo, coming out of an off-day means you’re available. As teammates heaped praise on the 26-year-old, he deflected it right back.
“I’m very excited and very proud,” Castillo said. “It’s an unbelievable accomplishment and I’m proud that the team gave me the support and gave me this opportunity for this moment in the playoffs.”
Time and time again, this Rays bullpen has picked one another up the odd time one reliever has stumbled, making Castillo’s salvage job in the eighth the perfect encapsulation of this talented back-end group. During the regular season, Rays relievers allowed just 19 percent of inherited runners to score, which was comfortably the best mark in the Major Leagues. They’ve gotten even better in the postseason, retiring a perfect 16 of 16 inherited runners through this Game 1 win.
Castillo allowed two of eight inherited baserunners to score during the regular season, but he’s now stranded all five runners he’s inherited in the postseason. For a team that relies on matchups and creative strategies as much as the Rays, it’s particularly important to slam the door shut in situations like these, and it’s exactly why Tampa Bay enters Game 2 with its bullpen set up to play more “Rays baseball.”
Part of Rays baseball is playing in close games. Talent often wins out, but Cash believes there’s more to it than that. The Rays went 14-5 in one-run games this season and are now 2-0 in those games in the postseason, and his bullpen’s effort late is just another example of how that learned experience translates.
“The one thing you learn with our club, over 60 or 162 [games], we’re in a lot of tight ballgames,” Cash said, “and tight ballgames are going to teach you -- and you have to teach yourself a little bit -- how to win those. That’s mistake-free, playing clean and doing things that just don’t allow the extra 90 feet or the extra baserunner. The value of that is just huge.
“The last two wins, we’ve won 2-1. There’s no margin for error.”