Nationals dismiss Eckstein, name Schu hitting coach
Former roving hitting instructor for Washington takes over to lead slumping offense
WASHINGTON -- On Sunday morning, according to Rick Eckstein, Nationals manager Davey Johnson assured him that he was doing a good job as the team's hitting coach. On Monday afternoon, the Nationals' front office thought otherwise, for they relieved Eckstein of his duties and named Rick Schu the new hitting coach.
The news comes a day after the Nationals were swept by the Dodgers. Washington scored a total of five runs in the three game-series. Washington also ranks near the bottom of almost every offensive category, including batting average and runs scored.
Johnson broke the news to Eckstein about his dismissal late Monday morning, while Eckstein was on a treadmill and watching video of Pirates pitchers. Eckstein then spoke to general manager Mike Rizzo, who explained to Eckstein why the team made the move.
"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 acknowledged that he disagreed with the decision and called the move one of the toughest of his baseball career.
"It was a shocker," Johnson said. "I've experienced a lot of things in my career. I've been traded, released, sold and I've been fired, but today is arguably the toughest day that I've had in baseball. I respect Rick Eckstein. I think he is a great coach. He is one of the best hitting instructors in baseball and he is such a great gentleman and a great man, so it hurts, hurts."
Johnson often said, "If you fire Eckstein, you might as well fire me," but Johnson has no intentions of quitting. Johnson tried to convince Rizzo there were other options. Johnson even suggested letting him go. But Rizzo wouldn't have it that way.
"I'm more concerned at this moment about my club," Johnson said. "We only want what's best for the players. As coaches and managers, we spend our waking hours thinking about what we can do to make it easier for them to be successful -- to do the things they know they are capable of doing. Rick and I had many conversations about each and every player on the ballclub and the direction we try to keep them going to be successful. I feel like a part of me is gone, too."
Johnson and Eckstein were known to have the same hitting philosophy -- hit the ball where it is pitched and be aggressive at the plate. But the Nationals were far from aggressive at the plate and they struck out too often.
When reached by MLB.com, Eckstein took full responsibility for the team's problems on offense.
"I'm the one to blame," Eckstein said. "I fell short. I don't blame anybody else. ... At the end of the day, I'm the hitting coach and it wasn't going in the direction that I felt it should have been going as far as performing on the field, so I'm responsible."
How did Eckstein take the news of his dismissal?
"It's never easy," he said. "I can't say it would never be easy for anyone. I love the organization. I love every one of the guys. I've been there almost five years. We went from a last-place team to a first-place team. It was great to be part of that process. This year, I haven't been able to get it done and I take the blame.
"When you are in charge of the offense and the offense doesn't perform up to its capabilities, it comes down to me. I have to take responsibility for that and I have."
Schu, who was a roving hitting instructor for the Nationals, will join the Major League club on Tuesday. In Washington, Schu has preexisting relationships with Bryce Harper, Anthony Rendon, Steve Lombardozzi and Roger Bernadina. He will also draw on relationships with Chad Tracy and Scott Hairston gained during their days together with the D-backs. Schu has also worked closely with numerous other Nationals hitters during the last four Spring Trainings.
Rizzo is hoping a new voice will turn the offense around for the Nationals.
"Well I think it can, and that's what we're hoping for," Rizzo said. "Schuey's got an approach a lot like Davey's and Eck's, so we'll be going from the same playbook, if you will. [Schu is] a guy who's done it before at the Major League level, he's coached it before at the Major League level, he knows our Minor League players, what it's taken for them to get to the big leagues, so I think his perspective, his energy and his attitude in the clubhouse will be something that the players will embrace."
Bill Ladson is a reporter for MLB.com and writes an MLBlog, All Nats All the time. He also could be found on Twitter @WashingNats. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.