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Stuck in a season-long offensive funk that actually got worse over the last two weeks, the Nationals fired Rick Eckstein today, a move that contradicted overwhelming public support for the hitting coach from club officials no matter how unproductive his lineup had been.
Rick Schu, the organization's minor-league hitting coordinator, will take over big-league coaching duties, beginning on Tuesday as the Nats host the Pirates.
The Nationals can only hope a new voice — not to mention today's surprising shakeup — can get this struggling offensive group on track before it falls completely out of the race in the NL East.
The Nationals rank 14th out of 15 NL clubs in runs scored, on-base percentage and OPS this season, and 13th in batting average and total bases. They scored only five total runs during a weekend sweep at the hands of the Dodgers and over their last 12 losses have scored a total of 18 runs.
Through it all, general manager Mike Rizzo — and especially manager Davey Johnson — offered unyielding support for Eckstein. Only two days ago, Johnson referred to Eckstein as "the best instructor" he'd ever had.
Johnson personally informed Eckstein of the news he was being let go, meeting him in the team waiting room on Monday afternoon. As a friend, he felt like he owed him the gesture.
"I felt like I had to be the one to tell him. I owed him that much respect," Johnson said.
Telling Eckstein himself "didn't make it any easier" according to Johnson. Monday, in fact, was very tough for Nationals skipper.
"I’ve experienced a lot of things in my career. I’ve been traded, I’ve been released, I’ve been sold, I’ve been fired," he said. "But today is arguably the toughest day I’ve had in baseball."
"I respect Rick Eckstein, I think he’s a great coach. I think he’s one of, if not the best hitting instructor in baseball. He’s just a great gentleman and a great man. It hurts."
Rizzo felt it was time to make a change, even if it meant letting go the only hitting coach he's had as a general manager.
"Rick Eckstein is a fine hitting coach, he’s a Major League caliber hitting coach, and a lot of this falls on the players," Rizzo said. "This is a players’ league and the players are paid to perform and they haven’t, so it’s the voice of that and the guy who’s in charge of that, we felt we needed a different perspective and a different way of doing things."
Johnson spoke out in defense of Eckstein multiple times this season and said he still doesn't agree with move.
"Obviously I’m not in agreement with it," he said.
Rizzo confirmed on Monday that the move was his decision and not Davey's.
"This was a general manager’s decision. I respect Davey to the point where I run everything that we do by him, but there’s certain things that we may not agree on and this was one of them. I felt we needed a change and so I made the change."
Earlier this month Johnson said in defending Eckstein: "if you fired him, you might as well fire me." Though he told Rizzo it was an option when they discussed getting rid of Eckstein, he has no plans to resign.
"I’m not quitting," he said. "In my discussions about firing Rick I said there’s other options, you can do away with me if you want a change of scenery or change the philosophy. I’m more concerned at this moment about my club."
Rizzo said he and the Nationals front office don't see need for a change at manager either.
"Well we’re not going to fire Davey Johnson," he said. "He’s a pro, Davey’s a pro, been through a lot of this stuff before, and we’re not worried about our manager. He’s one of the best in baseball and I trust him."
Eckstein had held his position as the Nationals' major-league hitting coach since October 2008, surviving the departures of two previous managers (Manny Acta and Jim Riggleman). A tireless worker who spent countless hours with players watching video and working on technique in the cage, he was the majors' only hitting coach who never played professionally, his career having been derailed by injuries while at the University of Florida.
During Eckstein's tenure in Washington, the Nationals rose from the having worst record in baseball in 2009 to the best in 2012. Along the way he saw many of his pupils enjoy career years, an aspect that makes it difficult for several Nats players to swallow.
"Rick was part of something really special here," Ian Desmond said. "It gets hard to remember that a couple of years ago there were 15,000 or 20,000 people in the stands and a sub-.500 team getting run out there every day. With Rick we got better, we continued to get better and we ended up winning a division title. I think he’s got four or five Silver Sluggers on his resume."
Desmond won the Silver Slugger for NL shortstops in 2012 and credits Eckstein a lot for his development.
"I’m one of the guys who had a Silver Slugger while he was here so me and Rick worked well together," Desmond said. "I think one of the best qualities of Rick was that he was the epitome of a team player. If I said, ‘Rick I want to go out and hit in some rain and lightning,’ he would do it."
Schu, meanwhile, spent parts of 11 seasons in the 1980s and 90s in the big leagues with the Phillies, Orioles, Tigers, Angels and Expos. He had been the Nationals' minor-league hitting instructor the last four seasons.
Rizzo said he thinks the Nats are in good hands with their new hitting coach.
"Rick Schu I thought was the perfect guy at the perfect time," he said. "I’ve worked with him before, I was comfortable with him. He knows all the players, and he’s been a good hitting coach in the Major Leagues, knows all our young hitters, and knows a lot of the veteran guys and has a good feel for it."
The players know Eckstein's firing has a lot to do with their own performance on the field and they feel their struggles this season haven't been his fault. Ryan Zimmerman said that, if the Nats do get it going, it will be up to the players and not Schu.
"No coach is going to come in here and turn someone who isn’t a .300 hitter into a .300 hitter," he said. "When it comes down to it, no hitting coach or pitching coach can do anything about this but us."
Chase Hughes contributed to this report