By Hal McCoy
The first time Luis Castillo walked into the Cincinnati Reds clubhouse, he dropped his bag on the floor and began to sit in a chair in front of his dressing cubicle.
Before he hit the chair, a voice next to him said, “Well, La Piedra is here.” The voice belonged to fellow Reds pitcher Tim Adleman, using Spanish to call Castillo “The Rock.”
Castillo smiled broadly as he relayed that story and said, “I had never been called that, but it stuck and people call me that, and I like it.”
That’s because it fits the 26-year-old righthander from Bani, the Dominican Republic. Castillo has become the rock of a solid Reds rotation, the ace who is followed by veterans Sonny Gray, Tanner Roark, Anthony DeSclafani and Alex Wood, when Wood comes off the injured list.
That Castillo is the ace is a stunner, a shock to everybody but the shy, polite, quiet, always-smiling Castillo. He wobbled at the end of last season and he was two steps below shaky during spring training this season.
Yet when it came time to name an Opening Day starter, new manager David Bell handed the baseball to Castillo, patted him on the posterior and said, “Go get ‘em.”
When Bell made the announcement, the screams and howls from the fans and the media could be heard across the Ohio River into Kentucky. Why not Gray? Why not Roark? Why Castillo?
Castillo applied a silencer to his critics by muzzling the Pittsburgh Pirates on one run and two hits over 5 2/3 innings, striking out eight.
That was just the beginning. Over his first three starts Castillo spliced together a string of three straight games during which he pitched more than five innings, gave up two or fewer runs and struck out eight or more. He is only the third pitcher in major league history to start the season that way.
By the early May, Castillo was 4-1 over eight starts with a 1.76 earned run average. The only thing preventing him from an 8-0 record is his team’s profound habit of not scoring runs.
When he pitched in New York the last week of April, Mets broadcaster and former major league first baseman Keith Hernandez said, “Castillo is the best pitcher I’ve seen the last couple of years.”
That came from a guy who watches Jacob deGrom and Noah Syndergaard on a regular basis.
The website Bleacher Report came out with a list of its top 10 pitchers in April. Was Castillo first? No. Second? No. Third? No. Incredibly he wasn’t on that list.
Nevertheless, Castillo was named National League Pitcher of the Month, the first Reds’ pitcher to be named pitcher of the month for any month since 1999. Denny Neagle won it 20 years ago, when Castillo was 7-years-old.
“That’s when I first started playing baseball, when I was seven,” said Castillo. “I played on a little farm, out in the fields. A coach saw me and wanted me on his team. To make sure I went to practice, he would come to my house and wake me up and say, ‘C’mon, you have to go to practice.’”
Castillo played all positions at first, but they soon discovered how hard he threw and they pointed to the pitcher’s mound and said, “That’s your new home, your permanent residence.”
It is not coincidence that Castillo is compared favorably to Mario Soto, a star pitcher for the Reds in the 1980s.
They are from the same town, Bani. Soto was a two-pitch pony, as is Castillo — fastball, change-up. Soto possessed what many believe was the best change-up in baseball, to complement a sizzling fastball.
Hitters knew one of two pitches was coming but were helpless to discern which was coming and when.
Now it is Castillo gaining support as owner of baseball’s best change-up and a streaking fastball. His fastball speeds to home plate at 97 mph. His change-up lurches homeward at 85 to 87 mph, and hitters wrench their backs lunging at the pitch.
Although they both are from Bani, Castillo was not aware of Soto growing up even though they lived close.
“It wasn’t until I was traded to the Reds (2017 from the Marlins) and somebody asked me if I knew Soto that I knew about him,” said Castillo. “Then when I went home people kept telling me about Soto.”
Then they became close. Soto is a roving minor league pitching instructor for the Reds.
“He has helped me a lot, taught me a lot, taken me aside and guided me,” Castillo said.
Amazingly, Soto did not teach Castillo the devastating change-up.
“I taught myself in the minors, in Double-A,” said Castillo. “Our grips are different. I just experimented with it and developed it myself.”
Castillo lives by the words of Tim McGraw’s country song, “Always Be Humble and Kind.” He displayed it on the day he was named NL Pitcher of the Month.
“It is an honor and this is for my team. This is for the pitching coach (Derek Johnson) and for everybody who helped me and for Cincinnati,” he said. “I have prepared and competed and trusted my team, and that is the key to success at this level.”
Trusting his team to score runs has been misplaced trust, mistrust. Support has been minimal. Still, he speaks lovingly of his teammates, who may prevent him from achieving his goal if they don’t begin providing run cover.
“I want to make the All-Star team,” he said. “And I hope God can help me with this, but that’s my goal.”
Well, God and a little help from his friends.
Hal McCoy, who covered the Cincinnati Reds for 37 years at the Dayton (Ohio) Daily News, received the 2002 J. G. Taylor Spink Award from the the National Baseball Hall of Fame for meritorious contributions to baseball writing.
Featured Image: Denis Poroy / Getty Images Sport