Detroit — So there he was Monday, minding his own business in the dugout in the eighth inning, thinking that maybe, with the Tigers down 15-1, he might not be called upon, when suddenly bench coach George Lombard was at his side.
“He said, ‘How is your arm?’” Harold Castro said. “I said it’s good. He said, ‘OK, you’re going to throw the ninth.’”
Throw the ninth? Castro, a super-utility player has played every position on the field except catcher and pitcher. He hadn’t pitched since his little league days in Venezuela. But, hey, whatever, team player, let’s do this.
When catcher Wilson Ramos went out to talk to him before the inning, Castro laid out his arsenal.
“I said I throw splitter, change-up, slider, cutter, everything,” Castro said, smiling. “I said, you just call it and I’ll throw it. We were joking around. Fastball, that’s it.”
The joking stopped though when the first batter he faced stepped into the box — of course it was Nelson Cruz who already hit two Statcast-breaking home runs in the game.
“I know as a hitter it’s tough to hit position players,” Castro said. “So I was just trying to throw the ball to Wilson, right in the middle and trying to make them get themselves out. It’s tough because as a hitter you want to do more. You know it’s going to be easy, it’s going to be slower and you try to do more — and that’s what happens.”
Cruz launched a 72-mph heater to the base of the left field wall where JaCoby Jones hauled it in. Castro walked Max Kepler but got Brent Rooker to fly out to right and Jake Cave to ground out to second.
Nine pitches and out. As both Ramos and manager AJ Hinch said afterward, it might’ve been the Tigers’ quickest inning of the day.
“It was fun,” Castro said. “First time doing it, so, yeah, pretty fun. I was just trying to throw the ball right there, not trying to throw real hard or something. Just try to put it in the middle and they’re going to make themselves out.”
On a day the Tigers real pitchers walked 10, it was a refreshing approach.
But this wasn’t the first time the Tigers have ambushed Castro.
Go back to late September 2018, he was back home in Venezuela waiting to play winter ball for Caracas after finishing up his season at Triple-A Toledo. He’d been with the Tigers since he was 17, in 2011, and that was as close to the big leagues as he’d gotten.
Then he got a call from Al Avila telling him to get on the first plane smoking and get to Detroit ASAP. Starting shortstop Jose Iglesias was injured and the club needed an infielder fast. Castro ended up playing in six games, going 3-for-10.
The next two years he hit .298 and established himself as a reliable, multi-positional player. Which is why this spring may have felt like another ambush of sorts. With the new coaching staff, and with the emergence of Rule 5 outfielder Akil Baddoo, whose strong play was forcing the club to keep five outfielders, Castro suddenly found himself fighting for a roster spot.
“Every year you’ve got to be there and compete,” said Castro, who may still be vulnerable once starting pitcher Spencer Turnbull returns. “I was a little nervous, and maybe there was pressure on it. But I just try to do my job.
“I know it was going to be hard for me to make the team, but just keep doing what I have to do and play where the manager needs me. I just tried to give 100% to make the team and that’s what I did.”
The fact that Castro hits left-handed is a plus. That he makes consistent contact at the plate is somewhat rare on this team and a plus. That he can play all four infield positions, as well as outfield if needed — well, it’s the kind of player a matchup-savvy manager like Hinch can put to good use.
“He’s easy to like and easy to appreciate when it comes to being an answer to a lot of different things,” Hinch said last month when he announced Castro had made the team. “With him and Niko (Goodrum) moving around, the versatility of this roster is really, really good.
“Guys like Harold and Niko, you can ambush those guys as a manager with whatever the game presents. Harold’s attitude and approach to that job has been very positive and, quite honestly, it’s why managers fall in love with him.”
Would it be nice if that love translated into security? Of course. But Castro understands how the business works.
“Every player wants to have security with a team,” he said. “But even if you are secure and a solid guy for a team, every year you’ve got to come here with the same hunger and do your job. … As long as I’m in the lineup, I know I’m going to feel good wherever I’m playing.”