During one offseason early in his minor-league career, Luis Castillo was back home in Bani, Dominican Republic, when he happened to see his idol, Pedro Martinez, sitting not far from him in the same restaurant.
Castillo acted fast.
“I ran to my car and grabbed a ball,” Castillo remembered this week.
Baseball in hand, Castillo approached Martinez and asked if the Hall of Fame pitcher could please teach him how he throws his changeup.
“What I remember most about that encounter is how quickly he ran out to his car and grabbed the ball,” Martinez recalled this week with a laugh. “I was like, ‘OK, yeah, I’ll be more than happy to do that.’
“I fell in love with Castillo right away, because this is a humble kid that seemed really curious to learn everything about — not only the changeup — but about everything that I did to be successful.”
The changeup had always been a difficult pitch for Castillo to learn as a young pitcher, and the chance meeting helped him master the pitch that would soon land him in the major leagues.
Castillo and Martinez have remained close since then.
“I’ve definitely had a great relationship with him. He’s helped me not physically but also mentally,” Castillo said through interpreter Freddy Llanos. “He’s a good guy. When I talk to him, I actually call him my dad because he’s such a great guy.”
Martinez, now an analyst on the “The Postseason Show” on TBS, will be watching when Castillo gets the start for the Mariners in Game 1 of their wild-card series Friday, the franchise’s first playoff game since 2001.
“He’s got the talent. He’s got the stuff. He’s got the poise,” Martinez said. “I’m really glad he finally was rewarded [with a new contract] for the kind of talent he is. And to see him in Seattle on a team that I think is going to be a contending team — not this year, but next year and the next probably 10 years.
“So I’m glad he’s in position to succeed, and I’m very happy to see Seattle finally make it back to the postseason, with all the talent they have. Seattle was one of those teams that, with Castillo healthy and the rest of the guys that they have in the rotation, and the bullpen, could surprise a lot of people.”
Castillo started one postseason game for the Reds during the pandemic-altered playoffs in 2020. He allowed one run with one walk and seven strikeouts in 5 1/3 innings in a loss to Atlanta.
“It’s something wonderful for me,” Castillo, 29, said of getting the Game 1 start Friday. “I’ve only been here for a couple months, but to be at that level, at those standards, by this team is something good for me. It’s the same as always: I’m going to go out there Friday and give it everything I’ve got.”
Castillo, a 6-foot-2 right-hander, has been just about everything the Mariners could have hoped since they acquired him in a blockbuster midseason trade, so much so that they signed him to a hefty contract extension worth up to $133 million.
“There’s a certain aura about him when he takes the mound,” manager Scott Servais said. “He’s a dude. He knows it. The other team knows it. You feel it when you’re playing behind him or watching him pitch from our dugout. He’s got all the intangibles plus the ‘stuff.’ And he likes pitching in big games, and this is going to be a big game.”
Castillo’s nickname is La Piedra — The Rock — and it captures his demeanor on and off the mound. He’s always been that way, he said, ever since his grandmother put stones on his mom’s forehead when his mom went into labor with him.
“Every time my mom had a contraction, my grandma put a rock on top of my mom’s head to help reduce the pain,” he said. “I don’t know where that comes from. She just did it.”
Castillo’s rock-solid approach was the first thing Pete Woodworth noticed when the new ace arrived in Seattle.
“I wish I had like a police bodycam on me when I make mound visits, just so people could see just how little of a heartbeat that guy has,” said Woodworth, the Mariners’ pitching coach. “He’s one of the most low-maintenance pitchers I’ve ever seen. He knows exactly who he is. He knows why he’s really good, and he believes in that more than I’ve seen anybody believe in their stuff.”
Castillo’s changeup, the one he learned from Martinez, was his best pitch when he first arrived on the scene with the Reds in 2017. He relied on that changeup and his two-seam fastball, and they were effective.
He is different pitcher now. Curt Casali has seen that transformation up close.
Casali became something of Castillo’s personal catcher when they played together in Cincinnati from 2018-2020. Castillo threw his first career complete game at St. Louis in September 2020. Casali had urged Castillo not to shake off any of the pitches the catcher called for that day. Castillo agreed; he didn’t shake once.
“From that moment on, our friendship grew, our trust together grew,” said Casali, the Mariners’ backup catcher.
Castillo has not shaken off any signs from Mariners catchers in his 11 starts with Seattle.
“He’s thinking less. Don’t think, just throw, and have the conviction behind it every time,” Casali said. “It took him awhile to do that. But I think ever since he’s done that, I think he’s turned into a completely different pitcher.”
Castillo is a bona fide power pitcher these days, relying heavily on a four-seam fastball he can paint in the top of the zone. That four-seam fastball has averaged 97.1 mph this season and has touched 100 on a number of occasions over his past few starts. He pairs that with a much-improved slider, and he still has his two-seam fastball and changeup he can mix in, too.
Pitching in a hitting-friendly park in Cincinnati, Castillo twice made the National League All-Star team. Even so, Castillo didn’t quite get the recognition he deserved, Casali said.
“It’s not intentional,” Casali said. “It’s just the market. Now he’s on a better team on a bigger stage.”
Castillo’s first start in Seattle was his best of the season — eight shutout innings, with 11 strikeouts, against the New York Yankees on Aug. 9, a game the Mariners eventually won 1-0 in 13 innings. Castillo matched Yankees’ ace Gerrit Cole pitch for pitch that night in one of the most memorable nights of the season for the Mariners.
“That,” Casali said, “is what he’s capable of doing every time he takes the mound.”