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."
As their offense has languished among the worst in the game, the Nationals have made minor moves to this point — sending Danny Espinosa down, bringing up Anthony Rendon, trading for Scott Hairston and sending Tyler Moore to the minor leagues — but Eckstein's firing carried a different weight.
Players recognized they cost someone their job — someone many in the clubhouse considered a friend. They recognized some sort of change was probably a necessity.
"Just looking at the offense we've got and the numbers, something's not adding up," said first baseman Adam LaRoche. "But it comes down to us. We're the ones who should be sent down for a couple weeks. It just doesn't work like that, obviously. Somebody's got to take the fall."
Added third baseman Ryan Zimmerman: "When you get to this level, it's your job to hit. You get paid a lot of money to do our job, and [if] we don't do our job it's nobody's fault but our own. ... No coach is going to come in here and turn someone into a .300 hitter who's not a .300 hitter. You are what you are. If we play like we're supposed to play, then we'll score runs."
Schu, who was expected to arrive Tuesday, joins the Nationals' staff with 16 years as a major league and minor league hitting coach on his resume, along with nine years in the big leagues as a player.
He was one of the first professional hitting coaches Bryce Harper worked with after being drafted by the Nationals, and he has a positive reputation in the organization.
So, on what most agreed was a difficult day, many tried to look forward.
"It's not the guy's fault that we're not hitting and he's the scapegoat right now," infielder Chad Tracy said. "As much as I like Rick Eckstein as a person and a hitting coach, the decisions have been made and we have to move on. Now it's time to move on with Rick Schu, and hopefully he can bring a new attitude that somehow lights a fire under us."
Said shortstop Ian Desmond: "Rick was part of something really special here. With Rick, we got better, we continued to get better and we ended up winning a division title. ... He's done a lot of special things and he's obviously a very good hitting coach. But this is a very cutthroat business and it's all about what have you done for my lately. Unfortunately for him, he had to go."
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