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.
"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.