Mired in a season-long slump, the Washington Nationals made a change on Monday by firing Rick Eckstein as hitting coach and promoting minor league hitting coordinator Rick Schu to that position.
The Nationals rank near the bottom in most hitting categories, including 29th among 30 major league teams in runs scored and 28th in on-base percentage.
Eckstein had come under fire but had a strong supporter in manager Davey Johnson, who said last month that if the Nats wanted to fire Eckstein, they might as well go on and fire him, too.
Johnson was not involved in Monday’s decision and said he did not agree with it, but he delivered the news to Eckstein personally. Johnson added that he would not be quitting.
“I’ve experienced a lot of things in my career … but today is arguably the toughest day I’ve had in baseball,” Johnson said. “I respect Rick Eckstein; I’ve said before that I think he is the best hitting instructor in baseball.”
Eckstein had been the Nats’ hitting coach since Oct. 24, 2008, which made him the longest-tenured hitting coach in the National League East.
“The game is about producing and scoring runs, and we were obviously coming up short,” Eckstein said. “I take full responsibility, I only blame myself.
“It’s difficult when you pour your heart and soul into it and at the end of the day, I came up short. I don’t blame anybody. I had the opportunity, and when you’re finishing at the bottom of the league this year, I just fell short.”
As is usually the case in these situations, the Nationals’ struggling hitters said Eckstein wasn’t to blame for their issues.
“It’s just unfortunate that we put them in a position like this,” said first baseman Adam LaRoche. “This isn’t on him, this is on us. … We’re the ones who should be sent down [to the minors] for a few weeks.”
Added shortstop Ian Desmond: “Rick was part of something really special here. With Rick we got better and we ended up winning a division title.”
Asked if a change was needed at this point, Desmond responded: “I think we need some hits with runners in scoring position.”
The man who ultimately made the call, general manager Mike Rizzo, didn’t disagree with that sentiment.
“A lot of this falls on the players,” Rizzo said. “This is a players’ league. They’re paid to perform and they haven’t.”
Schu has spent the past four seasons as the Nationals minor-league hitting coordinator. He has spent 16 seasons as a hitting coach since ending a nine-year career as a major-league player.
Schu batted .246 with 67 doubles, 41 home runs and 134 RBI in 580 big league contests with the Phillies, Orioles, Tigers, Angels and Expos.