CLEARWATER, Fla. – J.T. Realmuto’s relationship with Aaron Nola is still in its infancy. Sunday, for just the second time, Realmuto squatted behind home plate and caught one of Nola’s bullpen sessions during the Phillies’ morning spring-training workout at Spectrum Field.
When the great pitchers are throwing, you don’t need a batter in the box or game competition to realize it. You can see it and feel it.
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“Obviously he spots up,” Realmuto said. “His command is unbelievable. His bullpens, I could go back there and close my eyes and open my glove and he’d pretty much hit it. That’s the first thing that sticks out with him.”
Realmuto admitted he likes the view of Nola on the mound from behind the plate a lot more than he did on the side of the plate. During his five seasons with the Marlins, Realmuto was 2-for-16 against Nola with two walks.
“I can tell you one thing, he’s a lot easier to catch than he was to hit,” he said. “I’m definitely looking forward to working with him instead of going up against him.”
Catching Nola will not be Realmuto’s first brush with brilliance. In 2015 and ’16, Realmuto caught Marlins ace Jose Fernandez 29 times. Nobody worked with Fernandez more, and those starts remain etched in Realmuto’s mind.
“Usually at the end of the first inning, I could tell if the other team had any chance at all,” Realmuto said. “He was just a competitor unlike no other, and he had stuff that there’s no one else to even compare it with. He was definitely a lot of fun to catch, and it was almost on a nightly basis where I was thinking in the second inning, ‘If we get a couple of runs, this game is over.’ It’s definitely special when you work with somebody like that.
“It’s something you look forward to doing. I can remember back when I was catching Jose, I’d be counting the days until he started again. We have a pretty good staff here, so I don’t know if I’ll be doing that. I’ll be excited to catch all these guys, but I definitely will always be eager to catch Nola. It’s something that is exciting and something that is worth looking forward to.”
Fernandez was 24 and nearing the end of his best big-league season in 2016 when he and two others were killed in a boating accident after the intoxicated pitcher steered his boat into a South Beach jetty just after 3 a.m. Sept. 25. Christian Yelich, who was Realmuto’s teammate, informed the catcher about Fernandez’s accident.
“I was in bed when it happened,” Realmuto said. “I was rooming with Yelich and he came and woke me up and said he saw it on Twitter. I just didn’t really believe it at first. It was probably the longest ride of my life to the field that day. It was one of the toughest days of my life. It was something nobody should have to go through, but we got through it. In some ways, though, it still feels like it was yesterday.”
The hardest thing for Realmuto to think about is how special Fernandez could have been.
“The sky was the limit with that guy,” Realmuto said. “Multiple Cy Youngs, MVP, future Hall of Famer. He had that kind of stuff and the kind of work ethic you needed to do those things. And he was that kind of competitor. Nobody will step on the mound and be more competitive than Jose was. Literally, the sky was the limit for that guy.”
Now, Realmuto has another chance to work with a special pitcher in Nola.
“Obviously he has three plus pitches that he can use at any time,” Realmuto said. "He can really manipulate the baseball in a different way than most guys can and that’s cool, especially these days when you have guys who throw real hard and don’t know exactly where it’s going. Aaron can move the baseball just about any way he wants, and he can put it where he wants.
“For me, that will be a lot of fun to work with when we go over the scouting report. It will allow us to mess with the hitters’ timing and their vision, and that’s something that really works for him.”
Listening to Realmuto, it sure sounds as if his first two bullpens with Nola were the start of a beautiful relationship.