As the Nationals’ offense sunk to the bottom of the league, Nationals hitting coach Rick Eckstein saw the same thing again and again. A Nationals hitter would work the count, wait for a pitch he could drive, and then just miss it or foul it back. “We were grinding out at-bats,” Eckstein said. “We just didn’t execute.”
When the missed chances piled up and the Nationals’ averages shrunk, Eckstein sensed the Nationals putting pressure on themselves. He put pressure on himself, too, taking responsibility for the Nationals’ struggles, as is his nature. General Manager Mike Rizzo worried about his mindset enough that he made Eckstein off limits to reporters.
“I’m going to blame myself,” Eckstein said. “That’s the way I’ve always been. I don’t point fingers at anybody else. Where we were in a lot of categories were below where we want them to be. We want to go out and be able execute under any circumstances, and when that doesn’t happen, the first person I look at is myself.”
Outside of Eckstein, and maybe a few disgruntled fans, no one seemed to publicly question his impact on the offense. Manager Jim Riggleman and players continued to praise his work ethic. And with Ryan Zimmerman out and Adam LaRoche playing through an injury that reduced him to a husk of himself, their offense would not have been expected to score many runs. Still, Eckstein took the struggles personally.
“As the hitting coach, I take every at-bat home,” Eckstein said. “It’s something that, I think it through. I try to pick apart where I make mistakes. I try to make sure that every plan for each player is the right plan. I beat myself up about it. So, yeah, I do take it personally. When the success does start to show, I’m very happy for the player, because I know how hard they worked for it. But I continue to pick myself apart.”
After the past few games, Eckstein said, “we’re starting to not miss our pitch.” The Nationals’ offense may not yet have anyone asking the proper spelling of “juggernaut.” They are still hitting .232/.302/.369, which has them ranked 28th, 27th and 23rd. But they’ve at least shown signs of coming alive, particularly by scoring 16 runs, with six homers, in three games against Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee and Roy Oswalt. Eckstein has noticed a more relaxed from several hitters.
“Things are starting to come together a little bit,” Eckstein said. “Guys are starting to settle in. They’re starting to get a little more comfortable. Some of that early in the season, where guys were really putting a lot of pressure on themselves, they’ve been able to take a step back and relax a little more in the box and focus on the execution of the at-bat. Some of that is starting to show through.”