Be alert. When Ryan Castellani and Dom Nunez seem to disagree, it could be a ruse.
"When I do shake him off, it's probably him calling a 'fake shake,'" said Castellani, a righthander who will be the Yard Goats Opening Day pitcher at Richmond, Va., on Thursday.
Pitchers normally like to be so in sync with their catcher that they never have to shake off a sign, and thus stay in rhythm. So Nunez will occasionally give his signal for a fake shake-off.
The hitter? He'll just have to wonder what's going on.
"If you throw a fastball in a count already and you've gone to a 2-2, 3-2 count," Nunez said, "you want to finish with a fastball, you want to shake, just to get a hitter thinking, 'Oh, maybe he wants to throw an off-speed pitch.' It's a game within a game. That's what makes things fun.
Castellani, 21, and Nunez, 22, are two of the Rockies' top prospects and they have worked, and grown up together and keep the hitters guessing at each stop in the organization, first at Asheville, N.C., in 2015, then at Modesto, Calif., last season. Now pitcher and catcher, together again, to make the big jump to Double A at palatial new Dunkin' Donuts Park.
"He's a interesting guy," Nunez said, "he's got special stuff, special fastball, special slider, good change-up. You know, he throws with a very different delivery, a lot of guys like to compare him to [Max] Scherzer. When he goes out on the mound, it's a pretty special presence, with confidence. He has good enough stuff to beat just about anybody, he's gotten out some of the best hitters in every league."
Both Castellani and Nunez were invited to big league spring training, before being assigned to Hartford. Last season, Castellani led the California League, a circuit of small parks and thin air, in innings pitched (1672/3) and strikeouts (142), and was sixth with a 3.81 ERA – and he was three years younger than the average player in the league. Nunez, who started his pro career as an infielder, threw out 43 percent of runners trying to steal, and hit nine of his 10 home runs in the second half of the season and 51 RBI in 105 games.
"He's put in a lot of time, a lot work," Castellani said. "It's pretty cool to see how much he's grown and how smart he's gotten and how well we work together. He kind of knows what I'm thinking, come the fifth, sixth, seventh inning, and I know it takes a lot of thinking off of me. Every start, we've just grown closer and closer to where I can just say yes to what he puts down and we know from experience that it's going to work."
While pitching at Asheville, Castellani was on strict pitch and innings limits. One night, he was taken out of a game in which he was mowing hitters down. "Man, he was fired up, pretty upset," Nunez said. "He had everything that night. But it's part of the process you have to go through."
Last season, Castellani was turned loose, starting 26 times, and he showed he could last deep in games, not only with his arm strength, but the variety of pitches to get through a lineup a third and fourth time.
"I love going deep into ballgames," Castellani said. "My first couple of years we were limited. You really become a starting pitcher and start growing up, building into my body. To have last year to be able to throw seven, eight innings, it's very satisfying at the end of the game when you're able to pitch a big chunk off it, being able to go out and compete and go deep into games is a lot of fun for me."
Castellani, 6-foot-3 and 195 pounds, throws 94-95 mph consistently, with a four-seam fastball and a two-seam, a sinker, plus a change-up, slider and curveball, so the hitters always have a lot to think about.
"He throws a little unorthodox," pitching coach Dave Burba said, "not necessarily over the top, a little sidearm, somewhere in between. He creates movement with his pitches and keeps the ball down in the strike zone. He challenges hitters with his fastball and has some good secondary pitches.
Castellani, from Philadelphia, and Nunez, from Elk Grove,. Calif., have been training together in Arizona during offseasons, and playing a lot of golf together. The trust level between them is high.
"It's vital," said Burba, who won 115 games across 15 big league seasons. "One of the most important things about competing out on the mound in a pressure atmosphere is being comfortable with who you're working with. And these two know each other in and out."
Said Nunez: "The pitcher-catcher relationship goes a long way, it may be the most important thing in this game. I know what pitches he wants to throw to certain guys, I know what pitch he wants to use to punch guys out. I know where he wants me to sit. When he's on the mound, I just try to bring out the best Ryan Castellani every single night."