By Chico Harlan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, June 16, 2008
SEATTLE, June 15 -- The decision that gave Kory Casto the chance to pinch-hit came quickly, which was a good thing, because it guaranteed that Casto couldn't worry about all the people who had traveled three hours on the off-chance he might bat.
Just after Aaron Boone doubled into the left field corner in the eighth, Washington Nationals Manager Manny Acta told Casto to be ready. With runners on base in a tie game, Acta wanted Casto, a 26-year-old role player who has carved a career by hitting for contact and spending a lot of time in the minors, to have a chance.
The moment that followed -- and the one swing Casto took -- eclipsed the scope of Casto's boldest hopes. The first home run of Casto's career didn't just lift Washington to a 6-2 victory Sunday afternoon and a series sweep. It also fortified Casto's confidence and offset the hardship of 2007, when he batted .130 for the Nationals in 16 games. It affirmed Acta's decision to give Casto a chance in place of struggling Wily Mo Peña. And last, it gift-wrapped a lump-in-throat memory for Casto's father, who watched the ball tail toward the foul pole and then tried to track it down.
"This is way bigger than I ever thought my first home run would be," Casto said.
By the time Sunday afternoon's game reached the eighth inning, the Nationals looked more adept at helping Seattle score than at helping themselves. Three third-inning fielding errors, including two on one play by second baseman Felipe López, interrupted a solid Tim Redding start and provided the Mariners with their first run.
Meanwhile, the Nationals' hitters had spent seven innings doing two things -- getting on base, and then ceasing to hit with runners on. Washington left runners on base in each of the first seven innings, and several of those wasted opportunities were attributable to Peña, an outfielder with a No. 4 hitter's build and a No. 9 hitter's average.
In the fourth, Peña erased one scoring chance by bouncing to third for a double play. Two innings later, again batting with runners on base, he fouled a pitch back, looked at an inside strike, and then struck out on a halfhearted check-swing at a high fastball.
If nothing else, Peña's struggles pointed Acta toward a decision. All season, the Nationals had treated Peña with a delicate balance, reluctant to stymie his potential but unsatisfied watching him stymie their rallies.
"Wily has been struggling. And you know, definitely we had to take a shot there," Acta said. "We had three lefties sitting on the bench, and Kory was the best contact hitter we had there. He's not a strikeout guy."
When the Safeco Field public address voice announced Casto as the pinch hitter, the Nationals had two on and nobody out. Casto knew little about Mariners relief pitcher Mark Lowe, except that he threw hard, with a tendency to use a sinker.
Knowing a sacrifice fly would push Washington ahead, Casto tried to think small. Just put the ball in the air, he told himself. Look for a high pitch to elevate.
With the count 0-1, Casto saw just what he wanted -- a high fastball. And then, he received even more than he could have wanted: The ball crested toward the right field foul pole, skipping off the inside of the yellow upright. Scott Casto, who had coached his son until high school, simply thought: "Stay fair, stay fair." Seattle right fielder Jeremy Reed watched the ball clear the fence and then motioned that the ball was foul. The umpires conferred. The Safeco crowd booed.
The umps decided -- fair ball.
"I saw it hit something, so I didn't really question it," Casto said. "Some guys watched on replay in here and said it hit the pole for sure."
Casto had grown up a Mariners fan just three hours away, in Salem, Ore., and for this game, an entire family had bought tickets. His wife was there and his infant daughter, Kenzie. But most important, his dad was there, too. Just seconds after Casto's home run had given the Nationals a 5-2 lead, Scott Casto headed to the outfield, hopeful to track down the ball.
He bargained with the fan who caught it, and together, they joined a state trooper and headed down to the Washington clubhouse, where two Nationals caps were surrendered to the fan, satisfying trade demands.
After the game, Casto's family huddled outside the team clubhouse, waiting for Casto to shower, change and greet them. Other players who walked by offered their congratulations. "Casto!" Aaron Boone said to nobody in particular.
Casto called the day "awesome."
Acta called the moment "perfect."
"When I was younger, [my dad] was always coaching us until high school, really," Casto said. "He was always there. Drove us everywhere. He drove thousands of miles, missed a lot of things because he was taking us places. I gave him the wristband. Gave him a hug out there. I think Father's Day, that's a pretty awesome thing. And it's a go-ahead-for-the-sweep home run."