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.

Best of MLB: Manny Machado in center of bad blood as Red Sox beat Orioles

Best of MLB: Manny Machado in center of bad blood as Red Sox beat Orioles

BALTIMORE -- A tempestuous three-game series between the Red Sox and Baltimore wound up with Matt Barnes being ejected for throwing a fastball behind the head of Orioles star Manny Machado in Boston's 6-2 victory Sunday.

Barnes' ejection was the latest facet of this tense rivalry between AL East rivals. His high, very inside pitch came two days after Machado took out Red Sox second baseman Dustin Pedroia with a spikes-high slide.

Pedroia watched from the dugout for a second straight day Sunday with knee and ankle injuries. Machado apologized with a text message on Friday night, but that evidently wasn't the end of it.

When Machado batted in the sixth inning, Eduardo Rodriguez threw three pitches down and in near the knees. He came up again in the eighth and Barnes' pitch whizzed behind Machado and hit his bat. The ball hit Machado and rolled foul, and plate umpire Andy Fletcher tossed Barnes (see full recap).

Bour's 3-run homer lifts Marlins past Padres
SAN DIEGO -- Justin Bour hit a three-run homer to cap the six-run sixth inning and help the Miami Marlins to a 7-3 victory Sunday against the San Diego Padres.

The first six Marlins batters reached and scored in the sixth, helping Tom Koehler (1-1) to his first win of the season.

San Diego's Luis Perdomo came off the disabled list and shut down the Marlins through five before hitting the wall in the sixth. Martin Prado hit a leadoff single, Christian Yelich walked and Giancarlo Stanton hit an RBI single to chase Perdomo.

Craig Stammen (0-1) came on and allowed Marcell Ozuna's RBI double just past the glove of first baseman Wil Myers and J.T. Realmuto's RBI single to left before Bour hit a no-doubter to right field, his third.

Kevin Quackenbush relieved and got three straight outs (see full recap).

Astros use 2-run 10th to beat Rays
ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- Brian McCann and Yuli Gurriel both had RBI singles in the 10th inning, and the Houston Astros rallied from an early four-run deficit to beat the Tampa Bay Rays 6-4 on Sunday.

Carlos Beltran opened the 10th by drawing a walk from Ryan Garton (0-1) and went to second on Jose Altuve's single. After reaching third on Carlos Correa's fly to center, Beltran scored to make it 5-4 on McCann's hit to right.

Gurriel's two-out single put Houston ahead 6-4.

Luke Gregerson (1-1) went a scoreless ninth before Ken Giles got three out for his fifth save.

The Astros tied it at 4 on pinch-hitter Evan Gattis' sacrifice fly off closer Alex Colome, who was bidding for a two-inning save, in the ninth.

Brad Miller had an RBI triple, Steven Souza Jr. hit a two-run homer, and Jesus Sucre added a run-scoring single as the Rays went up 4-0 in the first (see full recap).

With new body, new swing, Cesar Hernandez keying Phillies' late-game power surges

With new body, new swing, Cesar Hernandez keying Phillies' late-game power surges

BOX SCORE

A constant theme during the Phillies' playoff run from 2007-11 was that even when the offense was sputtering, it never felt like they were out of a game. That group of players picked up so many late hits and mounted so many comebacks that even a five-run deficit heading into the final three innings felt like a winnable game.

The 2017 Phillies are a much different, much less experienced, much less powerful team, but their late-game offense has been a surprisingly fun development this April.

The Phillies used back-to-back-to-back home runs in the eighth inning Sunday to pick up a 5-2 win over the Braves and a series sweep (see Instant Replay). Cesar Hernandez hit a go-ahead, two-run shot off hard-throwing reliever Arodys Vizcaino. Aaron Altherr followed with a solo shot on the next pitch. The Braves switched pitchers, then Odubel Herrera hit a solo homer of his own.

Just like that, ballgame.

The Phillies lead the majors with six home runs in the eighth inning. That's more than the Cubs, Red Sox, Rockies, Angels, Mariners, Pirates, White Sox, Tigers, Rangers, Giants and Astros have combined.

They've scored 14 runs in the eighth inning and 27 in innings 7-9. Both figures rank third-best in the National League behind only the Diamondbacks and Nationals.

Unexpected late-game heroics and unexpected power from some unlikely sources.

"It's always a bonus to have a team like that," manager Pete Mackanin said. "These guys pull for each other. We have a good bench, we have some interchangeable players that can step in and do a good job. ... They're fighters and it's good to see."

Hernandez continues to open eyes with his developing power. He has four home runs through 18 games after hitting six all of last season. He has more extra-base hits (nine) than Giancarlo Stanton, Kris Bryant, Paul Goldschmidt and Robinson Cano, among many others.

And he's done it without sacrificing his eye at the plate and slap-hitting ability. Hernandez is hitting .338 through 80 at-bats.

Hernandez gained muscle over the winter and reported to spring training looking noticeably bigger, but Mackanin credits the power surge to a change in his swing plane.

"He had an uppercut swing," Mackanin said. "He worked underneath the ball, which made him a low-ball hitter. I think the fact that we convinced him to level out his swing and stay on top of the ball -- work above the ball and work your way down through the strike zone -- I think has not only given him more power but also (the ability) to hit more line drives and use the whole field."

Makes sense. Managers, hitting coaches and players talk all the time about how you don't hit a home run when you're trying to hit a home run, you hit one when you're thinking up the middle and catch the ball with the barrel.

Hernandez hasn't lofted more balls because he's trying to loft them, he's done it by getting stronger and developing a more consistent swing.

"He's an on-base guy and a leadoff hitter and now I'm starting to think of him as a cleanup hitter as well," Mackanin said jokingly. "It is nice. It's good to see. He's not trying to hit home runs. He's trying to hit line drives and when you work above the ball and level your swing out and you hit the bottom half of the ball, the ball is going to go up with a line-drive swing. Because of that, he's hitting more gaps and hitting for more power."

In a way, it's similar to what Herrera did last season, jumping from eight home runs as a rookie to 15 as a sophomore as he continued learning the strike zone, learning major-league pitchers and learning of his own capabilities.

"I love watching Cesar hit the ball," Herrera said. "He has a beautiful swing and he makes great contact on the ball. It's great to be behind him."

With Hernandez leading off and Herrera batting third, the top of the Phillies' lineup has gotten on base a ton. They've gotten a .384 on-base percentage from the 1-3 spots in the order. Just imagine how many additional runs the Phillies would have produced to this point if Maikel Franco or Tommy Joseph were hitting consistently.

"I like all three right there," Mackanin said. "I like Howie Kendrick, also. I'm anxious for him to get back (from the DL) and then we'll go from there. We've got some good things going. We've got a good bench. We've got Altherr, (Daniel) Nava, (Andres) Blanco. We've got (Andrew) Knapp who's doing a good job behind the plate. I think we're in pretty good shape that way."

It's not going to be an explosive, league-leading offense, but it's certainly a deeper offense than it was a year ago. An addition like Nava, for example, has proven to be underrated and pay early dividends. Remember, he was one of the last men chosen for the opening day roster. So far this April, he's succeeded in every role in which the Phillies have used him.

Despite not playing regularly, Nava has reached base in 16 of his first 31 plate appearances, something no first-year Phillie has done since Jeremy Giambi in 2002.

"Nava is really valuable to us," Mackanin said. "He's a part-time player that gives you good at-bats, quality at-bats. He works the count, obviously the first game of the season he showed us he's got power. Gap power and the occasional home run from both sides of the plate. 

"Watching a guy like that, you can't help but notice. If it was me and I was a free swinger, I'd go up to him and ask him, 'How do I tone it down a little bit?' He just doesn't get himself out."