VIERA, Fla. - For Edwin Jackson, starting Saturday's Grapefruit League opener against the Astros in Kissimmee, Fla., is nothing more than a ceremonial assignment. But the right-hander is eager to move on to the next phase of spring training and to begin forging a relationship with his starting catcher, likely Wilson Ramos.
"It's an upgrade from live BP," Jackson said. "It's more game mode. You're out there (and) it's more game focused."
It's also an opportunity to formulate a potentially symbiotic relationship with a backstop, where pitcher and catcher are on the same page as far as strengths and weaknesses, how to attack hitters and game-calling strategy. Because Jackson and left-hander Gio Gonzalez are newcomers to the staff, spring training amounts to a crash course in learning to work with Ramos and Jesus Flores.
"Throughout spring, catchers have a chance to build a relationship with the pitchers, especially the new people that we have," Jackson said. "They get a chance to get familiar with us and we have a chance to get familiar with them. I've thrown with a couple of catchers in a couple of bullpen sessions, but it's always a lot better when you have a chance to see each other in game-type situations."
Nationals bench coach Randy Knorr, a big league catcher for 11 years who ended his career as an Expo in 2001, will carefully watch the interaction between his catchers and pitchers to make sure it's developing properly.
"The whole game is about relationship building. ... It's communicating," Knorr said. The teams I've been on that have won championships, it's all about communication."
The process is particularly important among the newcomers to the pitching staff, Knorr acknowledged. Catchers have to understand the physical strengths and limitations of their battery mates, and they have to be able to get inside a pitcher's head to see what he might be thinking.
"As a catcher, you want to see what you can get right from the beginning and see if you can get on the same page because the worst thing you can have is the pitcher and catcher not on the same page," Knorr said. "You kind of let them do what they want to do and you try to read in on how they like to pitch guys. Hopefully, they pick up on it. My job is to see what they're doing and if my catcher's not picking up on it, I try to get them on the same page."
Beginning Saturday, Ramos and Flores will also be keeping a critical eye on Jackson's attempts to change his windup so that he doesn't show the ball and tip what pitch he's about to throw. Pitching coach Steve McCatty noticed the flaw when he was looking at video of Jackson during the offseason and Jackson said he's been made aware in the past that hitters knew what pitch was coming their way.
Jackson has been working on his new delivery in bullpen sessions, but said it's hard to replicate game situations in such a controlled setting.
"We'll see when the games start," Jackson said. "It's hard to say how it's working in bullpens. Bullpens are bullpens. We'll see how everything is coming along Saturday."