PHOENIX -- As his team has struggled much of the season to produce offensively, Nationals hitting coach Rick Eckstein has remained mostly out of the public eye. Restricted from speaking to reporters by general manager Mike Rizzo, Eckstein has been mostly holed up where he spends the bulk of his day: In the batting cage, tirelessly working with his players.
Eckstein admits he takes the Nationals' offensive woes personally; it's all part of being a coach at the big-league level. He's also encouraged by what he's seen over the last week or two. After their batting average bottomed out at .223 following back-to-back shutouts in New York May 18-19, the Nationals have hit .267 over their last 12 games, averaging 4.8 runs (up from 3.7).
Earlier this evening, before the Nationals took batting practice at Chase Field for the opener of a four-game series with the Diamondbacks, Eckstein was made available to reporters for the first time in about four weeks. Here's the full transcript of his group session...
On what he's seen in recent days from the Nats' lineup:
RICK ECKSTEIN: "Things have started to come together a little bit. There's been an excitement as this last series against Philadelphia. Guys are starting to settle in. There's starting to get a little more comfortable. Some of that early in the season, guys were putting a lot of pressure on themselves. They've been able to take a step back and relax a little more and focus on the execution of the at-bat. Some of that is starting to show through. We still have a ways to grow. We're still working hard, have a good plan in place. The at-bats have started to show."
On Danny Espinosa's progression:
ECKSTEIN: "Danny's made a lot of adjustments. Danny has a tremendous amount of ability and I would say, just as a whole, was searching for that consistency. That's probably been the most elusive thing about our offense. One day it was a lot of great things, and another day you're really searching for that one big hit to kind of break the ice to get us rolling again. But the consistency is the thing we've really been focusing on, and execution, especially with runners in scoring position."
On how he felt personally when lineup was struggling:
ECKSTEIN: "As the hitting coach, I take every at-bat home with me. It's something that, I think it through, I try to pick apart where I make mistakes. I try to get better, make sure that the plan I feel is the right plan for each player is right. I beat myself up with that. So yeah, I do take it home with me. And in the process, when they start to experience some success, or as success starts to show, I'm very happy for the player because I know how hard they work for it. But I continue to pick myself apart to make sure I'm doing everything I can do to make sure I'm there for them when they need me. And when they don't need me, I sit back and cheer."
Do you understand why Mike Rizzo didn't want you to speak to reporters recently?
ECKSTEIN: "Yeah, because I'm going to blame myself. That's the way I've always been. I don't point fingers at anybody else. I am the hitting coach, and a lot of the categories were below where we want them to be. And when it boils down to it, that's me. Yes, the offense is a collective group of guys that we want to be able to go out and execute under any circumstance. And when that doesn't happen, the first person I look at myself."
Has there been a point recently where you felt like guys were no longer pressing and just relaxing at the plate?
ECKSTEIN: "Yeah, when things happen in an at-bat that you're not used to seeing in a player. A player would normally do something, or be able to execute a certain attribute of that at-bat. And then they're not doing that. You have to grade that out. You have to evaluate that. Now, the same guys, when you watch them conduct their at-bat, they're able to execute what they want to do. So more of that has started to happen. That's a tribute to their hard work, their ability to relax and focus on the right things and ultimately put their concentration on executing for the team."
On staying in a routine vs. changing things up when they're struggling:
ECKSTEIN: "There's always adjustments. You're always making adjustments. But when it comes to preparation, when it comes to preparing as far as your swing, your routine, the time you put in before batting practice ... that stuff is standard. That stuff doesn't deviate. Now, the adjustments with your swing, the adjustments like some physical things in the box, there are adjustments with that. That's what you're constantly talking through with a hitter. When you feel like you've got a good plan, and the results aren't showing up, that's where you have to stand strong on your feet and say, 'This is the way I need to conduct my at-bats. I didn't get any luck tonight, but I'm good. This is where you need to be.' That's where I try to walk that line to make sure like I can say that about every player."
On the team's struggles with runners in scoring position:
ECKSTEIN: "Any time you're offensively not executing in those situations, it kind of mounts and grows a little bit. Each player is like: 'I gotta get it done. I gotta get it done.' And you really don't want to conduct your at-bat with that mentality. You really want to take that mentality in that: 'I'm going to get myself a good pitch and put a good swing on a good pitch.' If the situation is that the infield's in, that dictates you trying to get a ball in the air. That's where you really want your focus, not half your mind on: 'I gotta get it done,' and the other half trying to figure out what you gotta do. That's what we're trying to get through."
What's the key to taking what you did in the Phillies series into this road trip?
ECKSTEIN: "We believe in ourselves. Everyone on this team, every person on the coaching staff, every person in the front office. We know what we're capable of doing. Believing in that, trusting in each other, that's been a big key. In that Philly series, the last game we played was a 2-1 ballgame. It was a tight ballgame. It could have gone either way. I thought our pitching staff did a great job, Johnny Lannan was outstanding. You saw what we did early in the game, when Bernadina gets a base hit, Desmond bunts him over and Jayson gets a big knock through to give us a 1-0 lead. We play that back-and-forth see-saw where our pitching staff did great, pitched out of a jam, Nix makes a diving catch. All that stuff, that should build huge confidence in us, that we believe in each other and we know what each other can do and we trust each other. From our manager, Jim, all the way down to everyone in the clubhouse, we're on board together. We believe in each other and continue to grind it out. Because it is a grind. Every game is a battle, but we enjoy that battle."
What has stood out about Michael Morse in the last month vs. April?
ECKSTEIN: "He's been able to relax a little more. He's been able to let the ball come to him and not try to go get the ball, which is an attribute of a player whose heart is in the right place. He's trying to get things done, but ultimately that's not how you get it done. He's been able to relax and get in his hitting position, be able to pick up the ball early and ultimately put his swing on the ball. Early in the season, at times, we didn't really swing the bat that bad. We just missed our pitch. We would foul our pitch back. And they're grinding the at-bats out, and when it's all said and done, the at-bat said we didn't execute. But we're starting to not miss our pitch. We're starting to do little things when it comes to our offense. I think the baserunning has been outstanding. Bo [Porter] and Dan [Radison] have done a great job with the baserunning. That's a key component, too. We're starting to put everything together. It's exciting."