The Pawtucket Red Sox kicked off their International League Championship series with the Durham Bulls on Tuesday night in the best-of-five series to see who will win the Governor’s Cup. But that wasn’t why 4,000 fans turned out both nights at McCoy Stadium in Pawtucket, RI. No, the reason why most fans (and a throng of local media) showed up for the PawSox final two home games of the year was to see Cuban sensation Rusney Castillo.
Castillo, the Cuban defector signed two weeks ago by the Boston Red Sox to a seven-year, $72 million contract, is trying to get some work in at this late stage of the minor league season before making his expected debut in Boston in a week or so. He already played for Double-A Portland in their unsuccessful playoff run. Tuesday, he debuted for Pawtucket by playing center field and hitting leadoff.
Ironically, it wasn’t Castillo who stood out in the first two games. Instead, it was the two starting lefty pitchers the PawSox sent out to the mound on both nights. On Tuesday, it was Edwin Escobar– acquired in the Jake Peavy deal with San Francisco — who spun a gem by going seven innings, giving up only two runs, while striking out five and walking none. Heath Hembree– the other player the Red Sox acquired in the Peavy deal — closed out the victory by recording the last four outs, including three strikeouts. Pawtucket took Game One, 3-2.
Game Two was well on its way to finishing with the same result. This time it was 23-year-old lefty Brian Johnson making his Triple-A debut. Johnson, overshadowed by Henry Owens in his time at Portland, put up stellar numbers at Double-A: 10-2 record with a 1.75 ERA. He continued his success Wednesday night by going six solid innings, striking out seven. His only mistake was a two-run home run given up in the third inning to outfielder Mikie Mahtook. His approach and demeanor on the mound remind me of Mark Buehrle. His stuff isn’t overpowering (89-90 mph fastball, above-average curve ball), but he pounded the strike zone and worked very quickly.
Johnson was in line for the Game Two victory with Pawtucket leading, 3-2, going to the ninth inning. Heath Hembree was called upon to try and record his second save in as many nights. After striking out the first batter, first baseman Vince Belnome rocketed a Hembree pitch over the right centerfield wall for a game-tying home run. Pawtucket would go on to lose, 4-3, in 11 innings.
The loss Wednesday night will be a tough pill to swallow. Pawtucket looked well on its way to a 2-0 series lead with the prospect of Henry Owens ready to go in the clinching third game. Pawtucket pounded Durham starting pitcher, Alex Colome, for three runs in the first two innings. Colome, who was scratched from his start the previous night due to illness, did not look right on this night. He lasted only 1-1/3 innings, walking three, and giving up three hits. The Durham bullpen was stellar, hurling 9-2/3 innings of scoreless ball. In between, Pawtucket had their chances.
Which brings us to Castillo. Castillo got things started for Pawtucket with a lined single to left field on the first pitch he saw in the first inning. But that wasn’t the story. The tests would come later. In the fourth inning, Castillo came to bat with runners on first and third and nobody out. Castillo, with a chance to blow the game wide open, bounced a slow roller to third which led to a fielder’s choice at the plate. Opportunity lost.
In the bottom of the ninth, with the game now tied, Castillo had a chance to play the role of walk-off hero. With a runner at third and one out, all Castillo had to do was drive the ball deep enough to score the game-winning run. Instead, Castillo popped a shallow fly ball behind second base which wasn’t anywhere near deep enough to score the runner from third.
Castillo was pulled after nine innings, per a pre-arranged plan. Castillo wound up going 1-for-4 on both nights. He is a free swinger who doesn’t fit the Boston model of seeing a lot of pitches. He swung at the first pitch he saw which came near the strike zone. He doesn’t get cheated on his swings, either. He puts all of his 5-foot-9, 200-pound frame into his swings. His long swing is very reminiscent of the Cubs’ Javier Baez and Houston’s George Springer. While both those players have extreme power potential, they have also been prone to horrific strikeout numbers. Based on the small sample size of what I saw the last two nights, I see Castillo hitting for a low average with lots of strikeouts. He looks powerful enough to slug 15-20 home runs and quick enough to steal 30-plus bases. Will that be worth $72 million over the next six-plus years?
Castillo was never given the opportunity to flash his speed on the base paths on the two nights I saw him, which was disappointing. But I did see short, quick bursts and an aggressiveness on the base paths. His speed has been what every scout has raved about. Defensively, he also wasn’t tested. He will be rested for Pawtucket’s third game of the series on Thursday night. If all goes according to plan, expect to see Castillo playing center field in Boston next week at some point.