- The Washington Times - Monday, July 22, 2013

Davey Johnson found Rick Eckstein in the weight room Monday morning. Ninety-eight games into a season that hasn’t gone the way most expected for the Washington Nationals, their hitting coach was working out on the treadmill and watching video in preparation for the four-game series they were about to begin against the Pittsburgh Pirates.

The Nationals’ offense is among the worst in the majors. They entered Monday night’s game two games under .500 and were reeling from a three-game sweep at the hands of the Los Angeles Dodgers. Ultimately, their ineptitude cost Eckstein his job.

Despite his disagreement with the decision of general manager Mike Rizzo and his well-documented respect for Eckstein and his work, Johnson told Eckstein he was being relieved of his duties as the Nationals’ hitting coach. Rick Schu was promoted from his role as the organization’s minor league hitting coordinator to the major league staff.

Johnson, who said he was not involved in the decision to bring in Schu, called firing Eckstein “the toughest thing I’ve had to do” in five decades in the game of baseball.

“I’ve experienced a lot of things in my career,” said a sullen Johnson. “I’ve been traded, I’ve been released, I’ve been sold, I’ve been fired. But today is arguably the toughest day I’ve had in baseball. I respect Rick Eckstein. I’ve said it before: I think he is one of the best hitting instructors in baseball, and he’s just a great gentleman. So it hurts.”

“I take full responsibility,” Eckstein said in a phone interview. “I only blame myself. … It’s difficult. You pour your heart and soul into it and at the end of the day, I came up short. I have a responsibility for getting guys to reach their potential, and I came up short this year.”

The Nationals entered Monday’s game ranked 28th in the major leagues in on-base plus slugging percentage. They were 28th in on-base percentage, 27th in average and 23rd in slugging percentage. They hit just .212 off left-handed pitching, and .237 with runners in scoring position.

Across the board, they have underachieved this season with largely the same personnel that helped them win 98 games a year ago.

Whether that drop-off was as a result of Eckstein’s coaching or not, the change — which marked a departure for an organization that has staunchly supported Eckstein throughout his four-plus-year tenure in Washington — was necessitated by their struggles.

“I echo what I’ve said before: Rick Eckstein is a fine hitting coach. He’s a major league hitting coach,” Rizzo said. “A lot of this falls on the players. This is a players’ league and the players are paid to perform. They haven’t. It’s the voice of the guy who’s in charge of that. We felt we needed a different perspective and a different way of doing things.”

It was also the first major consequence of the Nationals’ disappointing season to this point.

When the decision to fire Eckstein was brought to Johnson by Rizzo, the manager offered himself up instead. Rizzo said firing Johnson is not a consideration and called him “one of the best who ever managed.” Johnson, despite his disagreement with the decision to let go of Eckstein, said he will not quit.

Rizzo and Johnson shot down the suggestion that there were more changes coming if the team’s play does not improve.

“I have no other ideas for any more changes,” Rizzo said. “I think the other aspects of our team have been solid, I just think that we need to upgrade and step up the offense. And if this sends a message to those guys in the clubhouse that are responsible for swinging the bat, then so be it.

“But this was to get a guy in here that’s going to give a message in a different way, and maybe the players will hear it in a different way and we’ll start getting on a roll.”

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