From his perch on the steps of the Washington Nationals’ dugout, Rick Eckstein has a front row seat for the work of his offense. He gets one of the best views in the ballpark of exactly what his hitters are doing. Night in, night out.
For a while, it was a seat that was scrutinized from the outside. The Nationals’ offense struggled to find consistency early this season and went through maddening stretches of ineffectiveness that left their MLB-best pitching staff hanging. It was exactly eight weeks ago that Davey Johnson stared into the thin Colorado air and vehemently defended his hitting coach.
The Nationals were operating without Jayson Werth, had just given Ryan Zimmerman a cortisone shot, were less than a month into Michael Morse’s season and, with an approach Johnson publicly chastised, were averaging 3.73 runs per game.
The responsibility for that, Johnson said, was not Eckstein’s alone.
“To a man, we got a little too concerned about hitting the ball the other way,” Johnson said Monday, revisiting the topic. “I think the regime in here before me liked everybody to go the other way. We really couldn’t handle fastballs in. We didn’t hit the ball where it was pitched.
“The book on us — and I don’t mind telling you because everybody in the world knows it — was ‘Pound ‘em in, with hard stuff.’ And we weren’t able to do much.”
But the view from Eckstein’s seat has gradually begun to change and continued to improve.
Finally operating with a lineup that is as complete and healthy as it’s going to get this season, the Nationals are averaging nearly five runs per game (4.84) since that June day in Colorado and their surge to the best record in baseball has coincided with their offensive emergence.
“Everyone thinks that managers and coaches should be fired before the players,” said third baseman Ryan Zimmerman, who’s hit .353 with 31 extra-base hits since receiving a cortisone shot in his right shoulder on June 24. “But when we don’t hit, it’s because we don’t hit. It’s not because Eck didn’t prepare us enough to hit. People think the hitting coach is like this savior… when, let’s be honest, you’re only as good as the talent.”
And the calls for Eckstein’s accountability have quieted. The Nationals’ approach, particularly in some of their younger hitters, has improved over time. The impact of their health cannot be overstated. But the responsibility for that success falls as equally on the shoulders of the players and coaches as it did when they were struggling.
“When we don’t score runs, it’s not Eck’s fault,” Zimmerman said. “It’s our fault. He puts us in the best possible position to succeed, and at the end of the day, we’re grown men and this is what we get paid to do… I think people put too much blame or pressure on him for something we should go and do ourselves. That’s why I think he gets so much of a bad rap. Nobody wants to say in June that I stink and I need to be fired. So it’s someone else’s fault. But I was the one up there hitting.”
Multiple players asked about Eckstein immediately referred to him as a hard worker. Eckstein is always willing to take a hitter into the video room or the batting cage when asked, eminently accessible for them. He was doing that Tuesday afternoon and so was unavailable to be interviewed for this story.
But Johnson was the first to volunteer Eckstein as one of the prime reasons several players’ approaches have improved. One of the prime reasons it’s not as easy to beat the Nationals’ hitters with fastballs in and one of the prime reasons they are 35-16 since Eckstein’s job was last a topic of discussion.
“Eckstein has done a great job getting them to stay inside the ball,” Johnson said, pointing to the team’s 132 home runs through 122 games (well ahead of the 112 they’d hit through 122 games in 2011) as an indication of the hitters getting a better extension on the ball.
“Hitting it where it’s pitched and not having to cheat to get to the fastball in. Just become better hitters. We’re not 100 percent to where we need to be… but I think we’ve really grown a lot and I tip my hat to Rick. He’s worked hard. Guys know who they are.”