DUNEDIN, FLA. — The last time Miguel Castro's baseball career made any sense, at least from a linear player development standpoint, it came at the same park he began his 2018 Orioles rotation audition in Friday’s 8-5 loss to the Toronto Blue Jays — Dunedin Stadium.
Before he was anointed the Blue Jays' 20-year-old closer in 2015, before that experiment failed and led to him being traded to the Colorado Rockies, and before the Orioles brought him in as a reclamation project last April, there were two weeks spent with the High-A Dunedin Blue Jays.
It was the end of a breakout season, when Castro, then 19, pitched his way up two levels from short-season ball in barely over two months. He did it as a starting pitcher, and though he came back tp Dunedin the following season on a rehabilitation assignment, Castro had already been knocked off the fast track.
That he formally began to state his case for a rotation spot after two seasons of struggles and one of success — last year as the Orioles' long reliever — back at that same ballpark excited Castro, and he left after three innings feeling like it was a worthy return.
"I felt very good today," Castro said through Ramón Martínez, the club's pitching instructor. "My knee was good — it didn't bother me any, and that meant that everything started the right way. ... I'm going to be competing every time, every time I go out there, trying to do my best and see what happens."
Castro, whose Grapefruit League debut was delayed by patellar tendinitis in his knees, had a day that mirrored that of pretty much every one of the contenders for the Orioles' fifth starter spot this spring, including Mike Wright Jr., Nestor Cortes Jr. and Gabriel Ynoa — he didn't dominate, but he didn't necessarily disqualify himself either.
He allowed a run on two hits with a pair of walks and a strikeout, leaving with the score tied at 1 before the Blue Jays started to hit around the Orioles bullpen. The Orioles fell to the Blue Jays, bringing their Grapefruit League record to 6-8-1.
“Good, pretty good. I like the way that he had the first inning and got right back,” Orioles manager Buck Showalter said. “I thought he ended up having a good outing with the body of work.”
In the first inning, with his fastball up to 97 mph on the stadium radar gun, Castro worked low in the zone but left a 2-2 fastball over the plate to veteran left fielder Curtis Granderson and watched it bounce off the left-center-field wall. Two batters later, third baseman Josh Donaldson stung a single through the left side to score him. A double play got Castro out of the inning, and three more groundouts made for a clean second inning.
After only being able to locate his fastball for strikes in the first inning, he began to throw useful changeups and sliders in the second, and was mixing all three in by the third inning. He opened his final inning by striking out center fielder Kevin Pillar looking on a slider, then walked a pair before getting two flyouts to escape unscathed.
While he held his fastball velocity through the 49-pitch outing, he said his slider "was a little bit inconsistent," but his changeup was "very, very good." That he didn't miss many bats but had six of his nine outs on the ground showed Castro was operating with much of the same formula that helped him to a 3.53 ERA in 39 appearances (one start) with the Orioles in 2017.
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His mistakes to Granderson and Donaldson were hit solidly, but little else was, and Castro left encouraged with what's ahead of him. While Wright has allowed two earned runs on four hits in three Grapefruit League starts to state his case to join Dylan Bundy, Kevin Gausman, Andrew Cashner and Chris Tillman in the starting rotation, Cortes struggled Thursday and Ynoa is out at least two weeks with a stress reaction in his shin.
If the Orioles continue to seek to fill the rotation spot internally, Castro's candidacy got off to as good a start as anyone's Friday.
"It's a competition," Castro said. "I'm going to try and do my best."
“There’s that time of year where there’s some empty lockers showing up in there and people get a little … there’s some anxiety and stuff and sometimes it shows on the field. that isn’t the case with him,” Showalter said. “He’s not paying attention, with him. I think it has been the case the last few days with some other guys. … They’re aware, but some guys, it takes them to another level. Some guys, it kind of weighs on them around here and there’s a little too much emotion going on.”