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: Josh Reddick's big day helps Astros sweep A's

Best of MLB: Josh Reddick's big day helps Astros sweep A's

OAKLAND, Calif. -- Josh Reddick homered and scored four runs, Jake Marisnick and Marwin Gonzalez each went deep and the Houston Astros beat the Oakland Athletics 12-9 on Thursday.

The major league-leading Astros completed a four-game sweep with their 10th straight victory in Oakland and their 15th win in 16 games against the A's overall. They've won 12 of their last 14 road games. Their 27-8 record away from home is the best in the majors.

Reddick also doubled, tripled and drew a walk, and Marisnick and Gonzalez each drove in three runs.

David Paulino (2-0) struck out six and gave up three runs, seven hits and two walks. The 23-year-old rookie right-hander struck out five of his first six batters in his sixth career start.

Astros center fielder George Springer left with a left hand contusion after being struck by a fastball from Jesse Hahn (3-5) leading off the game. The ball also grazed Springer's left shoulder. Springer is tied for second in the AL with 21 home runs. His status is day-to-day (see full recap).

Goldschmidt, Diamondbacks blast Rockies
DENVER -- Paul Goldschmidt and Chris Owings hit three-run homers, Zack Godley threw well into the eighth inning, and the Arizona Diamondbacks beat the Colorado Rockies 10-3 on Thursday.

Goldschmidt finished with three hits and four RBIs to increase his season total to 64, tops in the majors.

Arizona took two of three in the NL West matchup and is now tied with Colorado for second place in the division behind the Dodgers. The Diamondbacks have won 12 of 14 and are a season-high 19 games above .500.

Godley gave up a home run to Charlie Blackmon to lead off the first inning, but shut down the Rockies from there.

Blackmon drew a walk in the third, then Godley erased him with a double-play ball to end the inning. He didn't allow a hit after Nolan Arenado's one-out single in the first and retired 19 of the next 20 batters before Raimel Tapia and Pat Valaika singled and doubled to lead off the eighth.

Godley (3-1) allowed three runs on four hits and struck out eight in seven-plus innings. He also helped himself with an RBI single in the eighth.

The Diamondbacks hit a Colorado rookie pitcher hard for the second straight night. Wednesday they scored 10 runs in the fourth off Jeff Hoffman, and Thursday they battered right-hander Antonio Senzatela (9-3) for nine runs in five innings.

Owings' homer in the third, his ninth, made it 5-1, and Goldschmidt hit his 18th to cap a four-run fourth to make it 9-1 (see full recap).

Knebel sets strikeout mark as Brewers top Pirates
MILWAUKEE -- Corey Knebel broke Arodlis Chapman's modern-era record for most consecutive games by a reliever with a strikeout at a season's start, fanning a batter for the 38th straight game and closing out the Milwaukee Brewers' 4-2 win over the Pittsburgh Pirates on Thursday.

Knebel struck out Josh Bell on a foul tip leading off the ninth. The 25-year-old right-hander retired Elias Diaz and Andrew McCutchen on popouts, finishing a four-hitter for his 12th save in 15 chances.

Chapman had set the mark since 1900 as part of a streak of 49 games for Cincinnati that began in August 2013 and ended the following August.

Travis Shaw drove in three runs with a homer and two doubles, and he came within inches of a second home run.

Chase Anderson (6-2) allowed two runs and two hits in six innings (see full recap).

Pete Mackanin 'not pleased' with Odubel Herrera's base-running blunders

Pete Mackanin 'not pleased' with Odubel Herrera's base-running blunders

Odubel Herrera’s return to the dugout was so slow that home plate umpire Nic Lentz had to clap to speed him along. Herrera obliged, accelerating to an effortless jog until he left Lentz’s sight. Then he went back to a hung head and a crawling pace as he reached the steps. Boos met his ears through it all. 

Herrera was picked off third base by Cardinals catcher Yadier Molina for the second out of the fourth inning on Thursday. It didn’t matter much as the Phillies beat the Cardinals, 5-1 (see Instant Replay), guided by Aaron Nola’s the best outing in a long time (see story)

However, Herrera made a base-running blunder at the same spot Wednesday night, when he blew through a Juan Samuel stop sign and was out by a mile at home plate to make the final out in the ninth inning of a tie game. And later on Thursday, while on second during a running count and Maikel Franco behind him at first, Herrera didn’t run on the pitch.

These are mistakes any big-leaguer should avoid. And when he’s the only player a team has signed to a long-term deal, which is supposed to last into a new era that involves winning games, the mistakes sting a bit more. 

“I’m not pleased about it,” Phillies manager Pete Mackanin said. 

Had Wednesday night’s gaffe been avoided, maybe the Phillies could have gone on to win. Thursday’s was more embarrassing than damaging. While displeased, Mackanin, who said he thought about giving Herrera Thursday off, understood what happened this time around.

“He was running contact. And when you’re running contact, you’re susceptible to getting picked off by a catcher, especially with a left-handed hitter up,” Mackanin said. “You have to be aware of that. They’re taught to be aware of that. He just didn’t take that first hard step back. And that deters the catcher from throwing to third base. It happened.” 

The Phillies have been picked off eight times this season. Entering Thursday, only four teams had been picked off more. 

The Phillies own a run scoring percentage (percentage of base runners that eventually score) of 28.0, which puts them in the bottom third of the league. While much of that can be attributed to bad bats, mistakes like Herrera’s are not helping the cause. 

At 25, Herrera is still figuring this whole thing out. But he was the Phillies’ only All-Star last year and is supposed to be a consistent presence in the lineup. 

Andres Blanco, on the opposite end of the spectrum, first saw major-league action in 2004, and should be providing a consistent presence in the Phillies’ clubhouse. Yet on Thursday, starting at second base instead of Howie Kendrick, Blanco made a veteran play on the base paths, which felt like the remedy to Herrera’s mental lapses.

In the bottom of the fifth, with two outs and Blanco on second base, Freddy Galvis grounded a ball up the middle. Cardinals shortstop Aledmys Diaz sent an errant flip to second to get the final out, and Blanco was smart enough to round third and score after the ball got loose in the infield. Mackanin called it a heads-up play. 

“That’s the kind of players you’re looking for, the guys that are going to look for those kinds of things to happen,” Mackanin said, “and they don't assume a play is going to be made and assume they might be able to take an extra base.

“He’s a veteran. I’m glad he paid attention.”