Unlike the Giants’ closers of their past two World Series runs, right-hander Santiago Casilla shows little emotion on the mound.
Brian Wilson glared from above his jet-black beard and crossed his arms in an X after saves. Sergio Romo punctuated a series of three jumps with pumps of his right fist.
Casilla “doesn’t have a postgame celebration,” Giants catcher Buster Posey said. “He just gets the last out and half the time I have to tell him to come shake my hand. He’s already off and trying to shake the rest of the team’s hand in line.”
So what was Casilla thinking Tuesday, pitching to the Washington Nationals’ Wilson Ramos in the ninth inning with two outs, Bryce Harper on first base and an opportunity to send the Giants to the National League Championship Series?
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“We don’t want to go (back) to Washington – it’s a long way, you know?” Casilla said. “I say, ‘Casilla, make your pitch. Remember, Washington is too far.’”
Casilla, standing by his locker in San Francisco on Wednesday, said that with a sly grin, about as understated as his contributions this year to the Giants, who without them might not be preparing for Game 1 of the NLCS tonight against the St. Louis Cardinals.
Casilla, 34, had arguably his best season in the majors with a 1.70 ERA and a 0.86 WHIP in 54 appearances, both career lows. When Romo pitched his way out of the closer role in June, the Giants turned to Casilla, who finished the year with 19 saves in 23 chances.
Rarely were they punctuated with an outburst of emotion, never with a choreographed celebration.
“He’s not a flashy guy,” Posey said. “I think even I forget sometimes until I look up on the scoreboard and see his numbers; they’re really, really strong.”
A touch of showmanship is common for closers, some argue necessary to deal with the pressure of recording the final – and often most tense – three outs of a game. One reason for Casilla’s lack thereof, perhaps, is that he doesn’t regard himself as a closer. The label, he has said, brings unnecessary pressure.
“I’m pitching, no matter what inning,” Casilla said. “I like to see the people happy. When we win, I feel happy, too.”
That’s not to say Casilla isn’t suited for the role. He throws a variety of pitches, led by a fastball that reaches 94 mph with movement, and allowed a career-low 15 walks for a regular season in 581/3 innings. This despite fellow reliever Jeremy Affeldt saying Casilla can be “an excitable guy” who “has to calm himself down sometimes.”
“His belief and his faith and everything else dictates his emotion and his ability to control what goes on out there,” reliever Javier Lopez said. “He doesn’t try to do too much. He’s just out there trusting that God has blessed him to play this game the best that he can. He doesn’t try to ask for more than he’s been given.”
Lopez said the rigidity Casilla shows in games doesn’t start until the late innings, when Casilla starts mentally preparing to pitch. Before that, “He’s cracking up and letting loose, having a good time.”
One of the best examples is when Casilla breaks out one of the English phrases taught to him by members of the bullpen. “Sup, bro?” is a favorite, Lopez said, along with: “Sorry ’bout it!”
“It’s just funny the way he says it,” Lopez said. “Somebody’ll get a big double play and he’ll go, ‘Sorry ’bout it!’ It just gets everybody to loosen up a little bit.
“But when it’s time to lock it in, he’s about as good as anybody at getting that mental focus.”
It didn’t always bring results. When Casilla pitched for the A’s from 2007 to 2009 he was a different pitcher – in several ways. He was known as Jairo Garcia, for one, and on the mound he attacked hitters without much strategy. That began to change when he went back to the Dominican Republic to play winter ball after the 2009 season and, he said, a teammate showed him how to throw a curveball.
“He said, ‘Hold the ball like that,’” Casilla said, illustrating a curveball grip with his right forefinger spiked. “That same day I pitched and had like two strikeouts (with the curve), and I’m like, ‘Oh, thank you!’”
His first season back, with the Giants in 2010, Casilla had a 1.95 ERA in 551/3 innings. Left-handers, who had batted .354 against him in 2009, hit just .203 against him in 2010. In five seasons with the Giants, Casilla has a 2.10 ERA.
In the N.L. Division Series against the Nationals, Casilla pitched in three games with two saves and did not allow a hit in three innings. After he got the final out of the series, and the Giants had celebrated on the field, left fielder Gregor Blanco said, “I saw him in the dugout walking and praying to God, saying, ‘Thank God for letting me be patient,’ and stuff like that. He’s really emotional and competitive – really competitive.”
Said Casilla, a setup man last time the Giants were in the postseason, of getting the last out of a playoff series: “I felt very happy. But at the same time I was saying to myself, I can’t betray my team, because we were working so hard all year for that position.”
Now that they’re in the NLCS, some could argue Casilla is a big reason. But you won’t hear it from him.