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.

Lifeless Phillies should call up red-hot Roman Quinn ... why not?

Lifeless Phillies should call up red-hot Roman Quinn ... why not?

The Phillies are a lifeless team right now.

For a while the starting pitching was the biggest issue, then it was the bullpen, now it's the offense. The Phils have hit .224 since May 12, which was when their 2-7 road trip began. 

Their .268 on-base percentage over that span is worst in the majors and their .613 OPS is better than only the Mariners.

Players up and down the lineup are slumping. Odubel Herrera has hit .207 with a .246 OBP since the ninth game of the season. Michael Saunders hasn't given them much at any point. Maikel Franco had an eight-game hit streak snapped Monday, but even still is hitting .221 with a .281 on-base percentage. 

At this point, why not bring up Roman Quinn and play him every day? It makes too much sense right now.

Daniel Nava went on the 10-day DL Monday with a hamstring strain suffered Friday in Pittsburgh. It doesn't seem to be a serious injury, but why not use the open space as an excuse to bring Quinn up for at least a few days and see what he's got?

Quinn could infuse some energy and life to the top of a sputtering lineup. Bat him second, play him in the corner outfield and see what happens. At the very least, he'd be a defensive upgrade over Saunders. At the most, Quinn's hunger to stick in the majors could result in a hot streak that sparks the top of the order the way Herrera does when he's hot.

Quinn is hitting lately at Triple A, batting .333 with a .424 OBP over his last 15 games. He showed last September that he can be an offensive catalyst with his ability to beat out infield singles, bunt for hits and spray the ball. Yes, he strikes out too much for a leadoff-type hitter, but it's just hard to see the downside of a call-up right now.

The argument against bringing Quinn up now is that it's too early to sour on Saunders, a player the Phillies signed in hopes of trading at some point. But think about how much Saunders would have to do to have worthwhile trade value. Yeah, you could flip him somewhere for a negligible return or some salary relief, but he'd have to be extremely productive for at least a month to get a team interested in trading a minor-leaguer of any value for him.

Pete Mackanin has tried many things to spark the Phils' lineup, moving Herrera and Franco down, sitting guys, challenging guys. The best solution, perhaps the only solution right now, might be a move made over his head to promote the Phils' speedy, switch-hitting outfielder who has a future with them so long as he stays on the field, which he has this season.

As for Rhys Hoskins and Jorge Alfaro, who have also hit very well at Triple A, they just happen to play the same positions as Tommy Joseph and Cameron Rupp, who have been the Phillies' most reliable bats the last few weeks.

Phillies-Rockies 5 things: Phils turn to Zach Eflin to stop the bleeding

Phillies-Rockies 5 things: Phils turn to Zach Eflin to stop the bleeding

Phillies (15-27) vs. Rockies (29-17)
7:05 p.m. on CSN; streaming live on CSNPhilly.com and the NBC Sports App

The Phillies were supposed to take a step forward in 2017. Pete Mackanin went out on a limb when he said before the season that he thought they could be close to a .500 team, and so far they've fallen well short of that expectation.

At 15-27, the Phillies are on pace to go 58-104, an even worse record than 2015, the year of Aaron Harang, Jerome Williams, etc.

They hope to stop the profuse bleeding tonight against the Rockies, who can't lose on the road lately.

1. Franco and Saunders sit
Looking for some more offense, or just a different approach, Mackanin is sitting Maikel Franco and Michael Saunders tonight in favor of Andres Blanco and Ty Kelly (see lineup).

Franco has actually been hitting a bit more in May, picking up a hit in nine straight games before going 0 for 3 with two strikeouts Monday. Still, he's hitting just .221 with a .281 on-base percentage, and his .657 OPS is 27 percent below the league average.

Saunders just hasn't done much with the Phillies. He's hitting .227/.273/.383 with four homers and 15 RBIs, and he's struck out 35 times in 150 plate appearances. Two of those four homers came in games that were already decided.

It's a rare start for Blanco, just his fifth of the season. Coming mostly off the bench the last four seasons, he's been a consistent hitter for the Phillies, batting .270/.333/.449 with 43 doubles, four triples and 13 home runs in 559 plate appearances, essentially a full season's worth.

2. Eflin's turn
Mackanin's hope is that with Aaron Nola back from the DL, Jeremy Hellickson appearing to turn a corner and Zach Eflin giving the Phils some consistent innings, the starting rotation can get into a groove, thus helping out the bullpen and giving the Phillies a chance to win more close games the way they did in 2016.

Jerad Eickhoff was just OK last night, allowing four runs in six innings as he dropped to 0-5 with a 4.70 ERA. A quality start tonight from Eflin against a strong Rockies lineup would go a long way because the Phillies really need more than half of their rotation to be clicking right now.

Eflin was rocked his last start in Texas, allowing seven runs on 11 hits and two walks over four innings. It caused his ERA to rise from 2.81 to 4.25 and his WHIP from 1.00 to 1.25.

As is usually the case when Eflin doesn't pitch well, he just wasn't getting his sinker low enough in the zone. He had induced 40 groundballs over his previous three starts before picking up just eight against the Rangers. 

An interesting note on Eflin is that he's struck out just five of the 70 right-handed hitters he's faced compared to 13 of the 85 lefties he's seen. Righties have hit .323 off him with a .798 OPS compared to .250 with a .715 OPS from lefties.

Current Rockies are 3 for 16 off Eflin with just one extra-base hit. He faced Colorado last season at Coors Field and gave up just two runs over six innings.

3. An unlikely start
Unlike most seasons, the Rockies are pitching well and winning on the road. Colorado has gotten off to hot starts almost every year the last five, but it's usually fueled by an unsustainably hot offense. 

Hasn't been the case in 2017. The Rockies are middle of the pack with a 4.29 ERA, a half-run lower than the Phillies. And away from Coors Field, they have a 3.45 ERA, the second-lowest road ERA for any team behind the Diamondbacks.

The run has been credited to a young starting staff that has been missing projected No. 1 Jon Gray. We saw former first-round pick Jeff Hoffman dominate the Phillies last night (seven innings, three hits, one run, seven strikeouts) and tonight the Phils face 22-year-old German Marquez (2-2, 4.34).

One of the biggest difference-makers for the Rockies in 2017 has been closer Greg Holland, who signed a prove-it deal with Colorado coming off a major injury. He has 19 saves and a 0.96 ERA in 20 appearances and has earned himself a whole of money this winter.

4. The book on Marquez 
The Rockies acquired Marquez along with left-handed reliever Jake McGee in the January 2016 trade that sent Corey Dickerson to the Rays, where he's thrived.

Marquez made just a handful of appearances in the majors last season but has been solid for the Rockies in five starts so far this year. 

He throws pretty much all four-seam fastballs (65 percent) and curveballs (24 percent), with his heater averaging 95.1 mph. He'll also mix in a few changeups to lefties and cutters.

In two starts away from Coors Field, Marquez has allowed just one run in 11 innings with 11 strikeouts. He's kept the ball in the park in four of five starts.

5. This and that
• Good to see Aaron Altherr pick up two doubles last night. He was 6 for his previous 33.

• Tommy Joseph in May: .345/.418/.707, six doubles, five homers, 13 RBIs. 

• Since beginning the season on an eight-game hitting streak, Odubel Herrera has hit .207 with a .246 OBP, six walks and 35 strikeouts.

• Daniel Nava was placed on the 10-day DL with a hamstring strain suffered Friday in Pittsburgh. LHP Adam Morgan was recalled again from Triple A to take his place on the active roster.