TOLEDO, Ohio -- Nick Castellanos has never been as close to the Majors as he is now. There's just an hour's drive between him and Comerica Park, and an injury or an offensive slump between him and the 25-man roster.
But then, until this past weekend, Castellanos had never worn a Chewbacca-patterned baseball jersey, either.
'It's going to be interesting," Castellanos said about the Mud Hens' Star Wars weekend.
It was. While kids with lightsabers and Darth Vader masks cheered and a guy on stilts donned a Chewbacca suit and maneuvered around the field between innings, Castellanos' training as the Tigers' potential next run producer continued. Like Luke Skywalker's time on Dagobah in "The Empire Strikes Back," it has been a learning process.
The Mud Hens have struggled to score runs all season, so four runs in three days (and 31 innings) against the Charlotte Knights were more of a continuation than a weekend slump. It has surprised Hens manager Phil Nevin, whose team was supposed to be based around hitting.
Castellanos, meanwhile, saw a continuation of what pitchers have been trying to do to him all season. They tried to jam him inside with fastballs sometimes. They tried to get Castellanos to chase at other times.
They did what veteran pitchers do, which is what makes Triple-A baseball a different experience from Double-A.
"The pitchers, they're more consistent with their pitches," Castellanos said. "They don't miss their spots. They try to get you to hit their pitches a lot, so sometimes you really have to work counts and try to get a pitch in your favor."
When Castellanos made it to big league camp with the Tigers for a few Spring Training games last year, he was admittedly in awe of being around players he grew up watching, such as Miguel Cabrera. At Triple-A, he's getting a similar experience from players he's facing.
Castellanos saw Jeremy Hermida in the Columbus outfield a couple weeks ago and remembered the home run he hit for the Marlins, Castellanos' hometown team, in his first Major League game. That was in 2005, when Castellanos was in junior high. He faced Armando Galarraga a month ago and remembered the near-perfect game he threw for the Tigers in 2010, days before Castellanos was drafted.
"So now it's definitely interesting seeing all these guys who have played in the big leagues and are playing down here," Castellanos said. "It just makes you humbled that Triple-A ain't no cakewalk. Triple-A is definitely a tough league, and to succeed here, you've got to grind."
That's what Castellanos is doing. With a .232 average and .671 OPS, including a 1-for-17 stretch for May, his time in Toledo has been a grind.
Castellanos will get a 3-1 pitch and ground out to short, as he did in the first inning Saturday, then foul off a couple pitches before sending an 0-2 pitch through the middle as he did in the 11th. He'll work a count full, hit a hard line drive and watch it carry directly to the left fielder, as he did in the ninth Sunday.
"It's a learning experience," Castellanos said, "the highest competition I've played against. The game's a little bit faster. I feel like I'm making really good strides in the outfield. Just trying to find a little bit more consistency at the plate. I'll have one good game where I'll feel great, then I'll have like two games where I can't find it. It's just an adjustment period right now."
For those who figured Castellanos' Triple-A tenure would go like his stops at Class A Lakeland and Double-A Erie, it might have been a surprise. This is more like his 2011 arrival to full-season ball at West Michigan. Castellanos hit just .179 (12-for-67) in April that year, then batted .331 the rest of the way.
Whether Castellanos goes on that same midseason tear remains to be seen, but nobody expects him to hit in the .230s all year. Even Nevin, as frustrated as he has been with the Mud Hens' offense, expects his 21-year-old No. 3 hitter to handle the learning curve. That's the least of his concerns.
"I'm not worried about his hitting. He's going to hit," Nevin said. "There are adjustments to be made, and he's learning along the way, but he's going to be a special hitter."
This is what the Tigers wanted Castellanos to experience. When Larry Herndon made it to Detroit to receive an award last homestand, he talked more about Tigers prospects he worked with as a hitting coach at Lakeland than he did about himself. One was Avisail Garcia, who Herndon watched become a hero last fall. The other was Castellanos, who is ranked No. 1 in the Tigers' system by MLB.com.
"I had Nick for about a half-year," Herndon said. "That's all I needed to have him for. Fantastic hitter, just a natural. He has the stuff to be an outstanding big leaguer. He follows pitches. He watches the game. You can't fool him too much. He's just young."
The greater concern for the Tigers is to get Castellanos adjusted to the outfield, continuing the conversion he made from third base last summer. Instead of early hitting with Leon Durham, Castellanos will take early work with roving outfield instructor Gene Roof. After spending last summer tracking fly balls, his focus is on getting good jumps, taking efficient routes and learning both hitters' and pitchers' tendencies to position himself before the ball is hit.
"The last two weeks, his outfield play has been exceptional," Nevin said. "Gene Roof has done a heckuva lot of things with him. He's been working his tail off. Every day, he's out there. He asks to come out early. He asks to do extra things. I'm very proud of the strides he's made out there."
It's less noticeable than Castellanos' hitting, but that's the goal. The less people notice him out there, the less people think of him as a converted third baseman. When Castellanos makes a play such as a running catch on a soft fly ball Sunday, taking advantage of a jump, it gets easier.
"Kind of an ongoing joke here is whenever I make a nice play or something, it's like, 'Hey, you almost looked like an outfielder on that,'" Castellanos said.
The more Castellanos gets that, the better his chances of making the jump whenever his hitting comes around. Cabrera isn't going anywhere at third, but one can see an eventual path to Detroit for Castellanos in left field, maybe on a part-time basis late in the year. But it isn't imminent.
Castellanos is just an hour away, and yet it's a longer journey than that.
"You can't get down," Castellanos said. "Realistically, I'm not having great success right now offensively, but I have my fair share of extra-base hits. I have a couple home runs. And realistically, being 21 in Triple-A in any situation's really good. Now, it's just a matter that I'm in a great spot and come every day to work, and I know my results are going to be there at the end of the year."