After ups and downs in '16, Jerad Eickhoff and Cameron Rupp are ready to ace chemistry test

After ups and downs in '16, Jerad Eickhoff and Cameron Rupp are ready to ace chemistry test

CINCINNATI -- The relationship between a pitcher and a catcher is one of the most important in baseball. There has to be an understanding and a trust between the two if the union is going to flourish and the team is going to have a chance to win that night's ballgame.

It's no secret that Jerad Eickhoff and Cameron Rupp didn't always mesh last season. Phillies manager Pete Mackanin confirmed as much when he started pairing Eickhoff with Carlos Ruiz for a string of starts last summer. Mackanin, at the time, said he liked Ruiz's willingness to call breaking balls. At one point in June, Ruiz caught five straight Eickhoff starts and the right-hander had a 2.12 ERA in those games.

Ruiz is gone now.

Rupp is the clear-cut No. 1 catcher.

And Eickhoff is arguably the Phillies' best starting pitcher. He was last season when he led the staff with 33 starts, 197 1/3 innings and a 3.65 ERA.

Eickhoff will look to build on last season's success when he makes his first start of the new season Wednesday night against the Cincinnati Reds at Great American Ball Park (see game notes).

The 26-year-old right-hander hails from Evansville, Indiana, about a two-hour drive from Cincinnati. A number of family and friends will be on hand for the game.

And Cameron Rupp will be behind the plate.

In fact, he probably will be for the majority of Eickhoff's starts this season.

The two are ready to grow into one.

In fact, they believe they already have.

Eickhoff's final nine starts of last season came with Rupp behind the plate and the duo produced a 3.19 ERA over that span and opposing batters hit just .217.

So there was growth.

It took another step this spring.

Back on March 19, Eickhoff pitched six innings of two-run ball against the Tampa Bay Rays in Port Charlotte, Florida. He walked none and struck out nine.

Rupp was the catcher.

In fact, it was the first time the two had paired in a game this spring.

"If you watched Eickhoff pitch that game, it doesn't get any better than that," Rupp said a few days later.

It was during that game that the pitcher and catcher experienced a significant growth moment in their relationship.

Eickhoff had spent the spring working on his changeup and, of course, Rupp knew it.

With two outs in the sixth inning, Eickhoff was facing lefty-hitting Brad Miller. The count went full. Rupp knew it would be Eickhoff's last inning and he wanted Miller to be his last batter.

Rupp called for a changeup.

Eickhoff shook it off right away.

Rupp called for the pitch again.

Eickhoff shook again -- then caught himself quickly.

"We had been working on the changeup all spring so after a split-second I just decided I was going to trust him," Eickhoff said. "He believed in my changeup and thought it could get him out. I just said to myself, 'OK, let's do it.'"

Eickhoff threw the pitch and struck Miller out swinging.

As Eickhoff walked off the mound and Rupp jogged to the dugout, they looked at each other and nodded in unison.

Growth moment.

Bonding moment.

Trust builder.

"I haven't gotten many strikeouts with my changeup in my career," Eickhoff said. "For him to believe in me in that situation helped build my confidence. It was a huge step in our trust and us meshing in our relationship. A year ago, I don't know if I throw that pitch. I'm a little stubborn and he's a little stubborn. But something like that definitely helped push our relationship in the right direction."

Rupp smiled as he recalled that outing.

"We clicked," he said.

The click didn't just include Eickhoff's agreeing to throw the changeup and his successful execution of it.

It started with Rupp's reading of Miller's swing. Eickhoff threw a curveball on the previous pitch and Miller was ahead of it.

"It was the right time for that pitch," the 28-year-old catcher said.

Rupp believes some of the narrative of his not meshing with Eickhoff last season was "overblown," and he has a point. He caught 22 of Eickhoff's starts and the pitcher had a 3.57 ERA in those outings as opposed to 3.82 in 11 starts with Ruiz. And three of Eickhoff's best games -- seven shutout innings against San Diego on April 13, seven more shutout innings against Washington on May 22 and seven innings of one-run ball against Miami on July 26 -- came with Rupp behind the plate.

"It's frustrating because all I want is the best for him and it's like, 'OK, why aren't we meshing? Why is there mud in the water? What do we have to do to get back on the same page?'" Rupp said. "When he first came up in '15, we clicked pretty well. Last year, there were just some ups and downs and we weren't winning. It's tough when you're not winning. Guys get frustrated. Nobody is pointing fingers, but there are times when you're just not on the same page. We were trying to make in-game adjustments, but he was thinking one thing and I was thinking another. But that happens. When you're losing, it gets blown out of proportion."

Pitching is still pitching and baseball is still baseball. The two are completely unpredictable. And so Eickhoff was hit hard by the Yankees in his last start of spring training, Thursday in Clearwater. Yes, Rupp was behind the plate.

"That was all on me," Eickhoff said. "I wasn't executing my pitches. It was one of those days.

"Other than that, it was a good spring. There was a lot of great stuff that happened whether it was good or bad on the scoreboard. I'm healthy. The ball came out of my hand good. I made progress with the changeup and executed for the most part.

"I'll be ready for Wednesday."

And so will his catcher.

Phillies outfield prospect Carlos Tocci promoted to Triple A

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Phillies outfield prospect Carlos Tocci promoted to Triple A

Phillies outfield prospect Carlos Tocci, who it seems like has been in the organization forever, was promoted from Double A Reading to Triple A Lehigh Valley on Thursday.

Tocci, who turns 22 on Aug. 23, has been in the Phillies' organization since he was 16 years old. He's taken some pretty big steps forward offensively the last three seasons as he's gained muscle and experience, and this season he's hit a career-best .307/.362/.398 in 474 plate appearances.

Recent promotions to the majors of Rhys Hoskins, Nick Williams and Cameron Perkins have created openings in the Lehigh Valley lineup. Tocci will likely play center field, where he's committed just one error in 801⅓ innings this season.

Tocci will likely be added to the Phillies' 40-man roster this winter to prevent another team from plucking him away in December's Rule 5 draft. The Phils may have to make a decision between Tocci and oft-injured Roman Quinn (see story), though there are several other replaceable players on the 40.

Phillies-Giants 5 things: Aaron Nola on track to make some more history

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Phillies-Giants 5 things: Aaron Nola on track to make some more history

Phillies (43-75) at Giants (48-74)
10:15 p.m. on CSN; streaming live on CSNPhilly.com and the NBC Sports App

After a rather pathetic series in San Diego, the Phillies move on to San Francisco for their final non-NL East road series of the season.

The Giants have had an unbelievably disappointing season, getting very little from key pitchers like Johnny Cueto, Matt Moore and Mark Melancon and key hitters like Brandon Crawford and Hunter Pence.

On most nights, the Giants struggle to score. This is shaping up to be another one of them.

1. Nola night
Aaron Nola's starts have become must-watches over the last two months. He's on a historic run of 10 straight starts with at least six innings pitched and two or fewer runs. 

It's the longest streak in Phillies history, and it's a longer streak than the following pitchers have ever had: Pedro Martinez, Randy Johnson, Curt Schilling, Sandy Koufax, John Smoltz, Tom Glavine, Warren Spahn, Nolan Ryan, Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee, Max Scherzer, and countless others.

This is a great matchup for Nola. On top of the Giants' offensive futility, AT&T Park is just an extremely difficult place to hit home runs. There have been just 82 homers hit there this season, which is 23 fewer than any other park and 70 fewer than the league average.

Nola (9-7, 3.02) has faced the Giants only once, last June when he was in the midst of a rough summer. Buster Posey, Denard Span, Crawford and Jarrett Parker went a combined 5 for 9 off of him, but Nola is a much different pitcher these days.

2. Outfield help wanted
The Phillies are in a precarious position heading into San Francisco. They don't know whether Odubel Herrera (hamstring) will be available to start this weekend, and Aaron Altherr remains on the DL with a hamstring injury of his own.

AT&T Park is the most difficult outfield to defend in all of baseball. It's 404 feet to left-center field and 421 feet to right-center. A centerfielder must have above-average range to succeed there.

In right field, there's the high brick wall that a rightfielder must learn. If a ball hits high off the wall and caroms past the rightfielder, it's an inside-the-park home run waiting to happen.

The Phillies cannot expect to play Rhys Hoskins in left field and Hyun Soo Kim in right field and get away with it in this series. Look for them to help Nola out tonight by putting a more experienced outfielder like Cameron Perkins in one of the corners, even though his bat is a liability.

3. Shark attack
The Phillies tonight face 6-foot-5 veteran right-hander Jeff Samardzija, who's having an interesting season. Samardzija is 7-12 with a 4.74 ERA, but he also has 160 strikeouts and just 23 walks in 155⅔ innings. Roy Halladay had only one season with a better K/BB ratio.

The issue usually with Samardzija is that he throws a lot of hittable pitches early in counts because he hates falling behind hitters. Two seasons ago, he allowed the most hits, earned runs and home runs in the league. And yet he's still regarded as a very good pitcher because on a pitch-by-pitch basis, he can be tough to solve.

Samardzija, like pretty much any pitcher who goes to San Fran, has been much better at home than on the road. He has a 4.35 ERA at AT&T Park and has allowed 0.79 home runs per nine innings. On the road, he has a 5.05 ERA and has allowed 1.65 home runs per nine.

Samardzija has faced the Phillies 10 times in his career but his numbers (26 runs in 27 innings) are immaterial because no current Phillie has ever faced him.

Samardzija has six different pitches: sinker, slider, four-seam fastball, curveball, cutter and splitter. His sinker and fastball average about 95 mph. A right-handed hitter rarely knows what's coming on the first pitch — Samardzija has thrown four different pitches at least 17 percent of the time on the first pitch.

4. Nothing from the corners
Any major-league team needs offense from first base and third base. That has been true as long as this game has been around. They're both premium offensive positions where you typically see a power hitter.

The Phillies have gotten so little this season, especially lately, from their corner infielders. Maikel Franco is hitting .223 and his .276 on-base percentage and is 70th out of 71 National League players. (Only Brandon Crawford is worse.)

In August, Franco has hit .186 with one home run and zero walks. Franco has 17 home runs, but it seems like everyone in the majors has 17 home runs this season. There are 89 players with more home runs than Franco this year, so the 17 homers are little solace.

Tommy Joseph is hitting .102 in 49 at-bats since Aug. 2. Combined, the two of them have two home runs in their last 190 plate appearances.

5. This and that
• I dug up a depressing stat Wednesday on the Phillies' struggles this season against bad starting pitchers. Clayton Richard, Brandon Finnegan, Martin Perez, Tyler Chatwood, Tyler Anderson, J.C. Ramirez, Edinson Volquez, Adam Conley, Tim Adleman, Patrick Corbin and Ricky Nolasco have a 0.93 ERA vs. the Phils this season. They have a collective 5.22 ERA against the rest of baseball.

• The Giants' disastrous season hasn't affected Posey, who is having another dynamic season, hitting .316/.406/.473 with his typically elite defense.

• The Phillies' 6-20 record against the NL West is the worst record by any major-league team against any division this season.