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 changeups 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, 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 stunning 4-0 victory Friday 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 on Saturday against his former team, and Toronto is now forced to start right-hander Kevin Gausman.
“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 7 1/3 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 performer 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 were some lamentations that the Mariners gave up too much in prospect capital.
But playoff performance means more than prospect potential and future production.
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 Mitch Haniger, almost giggling. “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 hitters, 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 inning, Vlad Guerrero Jr. stepped to the plate with runners on first and second with two outs. With an 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 faced a similar two-out situation in the fifth inning and the white-hot Bo Bichette at the plate. With an 0-2 count, Castillo went to that same sinker. The pitch looked destined for the middle of the plate until it ran inside about four inches off it. Bichette had committed to swinging and hitting 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 four inches in horizontal movement. He threw 14 fastballs that were 100 mph or higher.
As JP 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 called on Andres Munoz to finish the frame. 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 inning and completed the victory even after allowing a two-out hit.
The Mariners put pressure on Blue Jays starter Alek Manoah in the first inning, 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 Rodriguez to second, 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 dugout 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 walkoff 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 very poor offerings from Manoah meant to get him to swing. Neither was very 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 walkoff. 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.
Manoah ended Seattle’s fun, getting Haniger to ground out to third and striking out Carlos Santana.
As expected, Manoah was able to settle in and find his command. But Seattle picked up a key insurance run in the fifth inning. With one out, he hit Rodriguez with a pitch for the second time. Rodriguez advanced to third on a France single. Suarez drove in his second run of the game with a 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 inning, having allowed the four runs on just four hits with a walk, two hit batters and four strikeouts.