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Nationals look to get back into the swing of things

Hitting coach has hands full

- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 5, 2011

PHILADELPHIA — One by one the Nationals' position players filed into the manager's office in the visiting clubhouse at Citizens Bank Park, piling into the small office and closing the door behind them.

With the team batting average down to .225 after being stifled by Phillies pitching the previous two nights, Nationals manager Jim Riggleman held an impromptu meeting with his players and hitting coach Rick Eckstein on Thursday afternoon before the Nationals' series finale in Philadelphia.

The message was simple: "Just reminding them how much I appreciate them getting after it," Riggleman said. "[Just to] let them know how much we're in their corner still. It just felt like the time do it."

Following the 35-minute meeting, many of the hitters went to the batting cage to continue working with Eckstein — who did not leave the cage all afternoon before Wednesday night's 7-4 loss.

As the offense continues to sputter, Eckstein has become less visible in the clubhouse, instead working long hours with hitters in the cage, on the field or in the video room.

He has not been available to reporters the past two days.

Danny Espinosa went to Eckstein last week with a desire to shorten his swing from both sides of the plate but particularly the left side. He is not alone in his request for the hitting coach's time. The second baseman, who has cooled significantly after a hot start, then hit his third home run of the season in the ninth inning Wednesday night. It was one of the most positive signs of life the Nationals offense has had in several games.

Entering Thursday night's game, the Nationals were owners of the second-worst team batting average in the major leagues, the fifth-worst on-base percentage, and had scored more runs than only four other teams.

They have exactly two hitters with averages above .234 — Wilson Ramos and Laynce Nix — and neither have the plate appearances yet to qualify as league leaders.

They're among the five worst offensive teams in all three slash categories — average, on-base percentage and slugging percentage — and were it not for the complete futility of the San Diego Padres' offense (hitting .218 on the season), the Nationals would easily have the worst collective numbers in the league.

Now, though, they have another issue to deal with. The longer the Nationals hitters' slump, the harder it is to keep their approach steady — and to keep them from pressing to do too much.

"It's a very fine line," Espinosa said. "I put pressure on myself because I have to get on base. If I'm on base, I feel that it's easier for the guy behind me to hit. ... [But] pressing is thinking you have to do everything. You want to challenge yourself to be on base but you can't overdo it and put so much pressure on yourself that you're going up there and having bad at-bats and swinging at pitches you don't normally swing at.

"I'm sure some guys, myself, I was pressing. I want to get on base. I do, and I'm not the only guy that's like that. We know if we get on base we're giving ourselves an opportunity to drive runs in and that's how you win ballgames."

The purpose of Thursday's meeting was twofold. The first was to remind the Nationals' hitters that neither Riggleman nor Eckstein has lost their faith in them, but it also served as an opportunity to reiterate that the other parts of their game cannot suffer regardless of what is happening at the plate.

Riggleman used the example of Phillies third baseman Placido Polanco, who struck out in a pivotal spot on Tuesday night and made a stellar play on a ball smoked to the third base side by Jayson Werth at the start of the next half inning.

Essentially: Don't let your struggles at the plate carry into the field.

"We just wanted to let them know the confidence level we have in them and just to keep pushing, doing all the little things we do defensively, running the bases, and let's get it going offensively," Riggleman said. "In the meantime, let's go win a ballgame.

"Regardless if it's 2-1 or 10-9, we've just got to keep doing the little things to help win ballgames."

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