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Big expectations as Rusney Castillo debuts

Rusney Castillo made his major league debut in the Red Sox’ 9-1 loss to the Pirates.Justin K. Aller/Getty Images

PITTSBURGH — For $72.5 million, he'd better be good.

That's the gamble the Red Sox took when they signed Rusney Castillo for all that money after the team's exhaustive scouting of his games in Cuba (on video) and his workouts finally led it to the conclusion that Castillo could be an impact major leaguer.

Part of that decision is taking the leap of faith that he will follow in the footsteps of fellow Cubans Yusiel Puig, Jose Abreu, and current teammate Yoenis Cespedes, all of whom are All-Star players.

The process of determining how good Castillo is began Wednesday night at PNC Park where he made his major league debut in the Sox' 9-1 loss to the Pirates, batting seventh after 11 games in the minors in which he went 12 for 41 with a home run and four doubles, striking out nine times and walking five times.

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Starting in center field, his first at-bat to lead off the second inning was forgettable. He hit a tapper in front of the plate and was thrown out by catcher Russell Martin. It was a far cry from his first at-bat in the Triple A title game Tuesday night in Durham, N.C., when Castillo hit his first home run and felt a lot of emotion running around the bases.

His first major league hit came in the fourth inning when he reached on a single to second base. Neil Walker stopped the ball on a diving play, but he couldn't recover to make a throw.

Castillo, who finished 1 for 4 and also made a nice backhand catch to rob Francisco Liriano of a hit in the fifth, said of his first start, "I'm pretty satisfied with that being my first game. Obviously you'd like a better outcome in terms of winning the game but I was pretty satisfied with my overall approach."

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On his first hit being an infield single, he said, "You always like to hit the ball hard and have it be a line drive, but a hit is a hit."

What does he plan to do with his first-hit ball? "Sign it and keep it in my house somewhere," he said with a smile.

Professional baseball in Cuba, where the majority of the pitchers are Double A or Triple A caliber at best, doesn't always prepare a player for the type of pitching he will face in the majors.

Castillo never has seen the steady stream of 95 miles per hour-plus throwers. And so the leap from Cuba and the minors to the majors will be big. Right off the bat he faced Pirates lefty Liriano, an accomplished and crafty pitcher.

Leaving Cuba and coming to the United States was a dream come true in and of itself. Castillo went from having nothing to being a wealthy man, life-changing in its own right.

So while Castillo says he feels no pressure, there has to be. There's always the feeling that you have to justify your salary.

"I've been counseled very well to just kind of stay within my own game and not really feel pressure, to stay disciplined with what I know how to do and take everything as it comes," Castillo said through interpreter Adrian Lorenzo. "I'm just going to kind of play the same game I've been playing. You learn something every day. I envision myself being able to take several things away from this experience here."

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Castillo, 27, probably will stick to center field, where he's likely to play next season, though manager John Farrell didn't rule out Castillo playing right field once in a while. Clearly the Red Sox signed Castillo for two reasons — to replace Jacoby Ellsbury at half the acquisition cost, and because Jackie Bradley Jr. failed offensively. Castillo may not grasp all that, he may not know the history behind why he's the new center fielder, but that's why he's here, and he'll find that out soon enough.

The Red Sox are just as eager as the rest of us to find out what they have.

"I don't think it's the results you learn from," general manager Ben Cherington said. "It's just watching him around the team, interacting with people, the questions he asks. This is just the continuation of an effort to get him exposed and get him comfortable in the environment and just log at-bats. He missed a lot of time after the defection. We just want to make up for that."

Cherington said there'll be time to make adjustments with Castillo's swing and approach if need be. Farrell spoke to Castillo about running the bases, knowing Castillo likes to run.

"Other than the basics, we really haven't gotten into a particular approach or changing anything like that," Cherington said. "We just want to let him get comfortable and get acclimated."

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Castillo, wearing No. 38, his number in Cuba, went from Gulf Coast to Double A to Triple A, and this is his fourth stop with different players, coaches, and managers. The one constant is Laz Gutierrez, the player development director the Red Sox have decided to keep with Castillo as he adapts to the majors.

"That was a very special experience to learn from several different groups of coaches and staffs," said Castillo. "I've been pretty happy with the way things have worked out — not just the success on the field but the relationships that I've been able to develop."

None of us knows what Castillo will be. But he's going to be compared with the other Cuban players who have been successful.

"I admire those guys and you respect the success they've had here and hope for that to happen," he said. "I'm not going to use them as a barometer for how I measure my success. They've counseled me a lot. There's been a lot of Cuban players that have reached out and counseled me on what the big leagues are going to be like and how to carry myself. It's helped a lot."

Nobody would be surprised if there was failure along the way. Castillo didn't make the last World Baseball Classic team for Cuba, nor did he make a team of Cuban All-Stars who were to play in British Columbia in 2013. He said he hadn't played in an organized game since July of 2013 before his minor league games.

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Cherington hinted Castillo could play in both the Arizona Fall League and Puerto Rico since he can't leave the country because he has yet to establish residency in the US.

"We're going to meet with him now that he's in the big leagues," Cherington said. "We're going to try to put together a plan that accomplishes some of the following: It accomplishes adding at-bats as much as we can. It doesn't require a long period of shut down and ramp back up again and also to give him some break between playing and spring training. It may be a couple of different things."

When Castillo came to the plate, both teams paid close attention. He will draw attention from everyone from here on out.

Teams already are lining up to bid on the next big Cuban star — Yasmani Tomas. And they'll base their aggressiveness in part on how well Castillo performs.

Nick Cafardo can be reached at cafardo@globe.com.