One excellent day, even when it lasts more than 10 hours and leads to two victories, is not enough to pronounce the Nationals’ offense fixed. They have been too powerless, collectively, for too long for the 12 runs, 24 hits and eight walks they produced Sunday to counter balance their struggles.
But they have to start somewhere. Sunday morning, hitting coach Rick Eckstein was thinking about how they started last year. On June 26, the Nationals were hitting .238/.304/.387 as they prepared for a game in Colorado. That night, they scored 12 runs. They plated another 11 the next day, then 10 in the series finale. They would score at least five runs in eight straight games, and for the remainder of the season they were one of the best offenses in the league.
“Every season, you’re going to face different challenges,” Eckstein said, standing in the tunnel between the Nationals’ dugout and clubhouse. “We started to show people who we are and what we do. It was kind of like our identity. Now, we’re still fighting for our identity of, this is who we are, and this is what we do. I wouldn’t call it being surprised or not surprised. I just know every team is going to be challenged every year.
“There are great teams that go through a lot. The way I look at it is, water seeks its level. I know what we’re capable of doing. I know the message that’s being sent. I know the work that’s being put in. I trust all of that. Just like last year, I trusted in that process and it played out and we ended up winning our division. I have to trust in that process again. Going through those tough times is never easy. Such is the big leagues.”
For Eckstein’s process to work again, the Nationals will need to repeat their approach from Sunday more often. Manager Davey Johnson met with the Nationals in the morning and pleaded with them to be more aggressive. Too often, he believed, they were watching hittable fastballs go by and falling behind in counts, allowing the pitchers to dictate at-bats.
“We have awfully good hitters on this ballclub, just for some reason or another, we’ve been somewhat passive at home plate,” Johnson said Sunday night. “We haven’t been really taking it to the opposition. And I thought, like I say, attack mode. More aggressive. And that’s what I saw last year and I haven’t seen that this year. This afternoon was great, and it was a carryover.”
More aggression seems like an odd recommendation for an offense that entered Sunday with a .286 on-base percentage and five walks in its last seven games. Johnson, though, believes swinging earlier would ultimately lead to more walks. If the Nationals started attacking fastballs, pitchers would stop throwing so many for strikes, and the Nationals would in turn find more favorable counts.
“His message was just to be aggressive, but be patiently aggressive, be selective,” center fielder Denard Span said. “I think sometimes we get up there and we give away at-bats. We are swinging at pitches that we shouldn’t be swinging at. He just wanted us to relax and just get settled in and make sure we get our pitch.”
Right now, the Nationals’ passivity has only led to pitchers taking control of at-bats, giving them no reason to throw appetizing pitches. Eckstein used the term “hunting” strikes, which fits. Johnson and Eckstein don’t want the Nationals flailing at everything, but they do want more aggression with strikes.
“It’s a function of getting behind and caught in between, trying to cover the huge strike zone,” Eckstein said. “Ultimately, not dictating what you’re going to do. The times we’ve done good things, we haven’t missed our pitch. I think that’s huge. When you’re hunting pitches and you get a pitch you can handle and you handle it, I like our chances. That’s been the message of what we need to do a better job, is hunting the pitches – especially the fastballs that we’re good at hitting – and trust it and go. The ebb and flow of that has come and gone. We just got to do a better job of being consistent with that.
“As a group, we’re trying to send the message that we have to get on pitches that we know we can handle in our zone and trust that and go. At times, especially with fastballs, we’re taking good fastballs to hit and getting behind and forced to hit pitches we might not be so good at. I would say the group message is more one of getting in the zone when you’re comfortable and hunting those pitches. Trust your swing. Do your thing there. Be more aggressive on those fastballs.”
The Nationals’ offense has let them down all season. Maybe, though, the aggression they showed Sunday with be a start.
FROM THE POST
FROM YESTERDAY’S JOURNAL
NATS MINOR LEAGUES
Pawtucket 5, Syracuse 3: Micah Owings went 2 for 4 with a home run. Eury Perez went 2 for 5. Matt Torra allowed four runs in 5 2/3 innings on 11 hits and two walks, striking out two.
Harrisburg 8, Reading 2: Robert Gilliam pitched five perfect innings and struck out five. He came out because he remains on strict parameters following offseason shoulder surgery, director of player development Doug Harris said. Steve Souza went 3 for 5. Jerad Head went 4 for 5 with two homers. Brian Goodwin went 1 for 4 with a strikeout and is hitting .242.
Frederick 7, Potomac 6: Adrian Nieto went 2 for 4 with two doubles. Justin Miller went 2 for 4 with a triple. Taylor Hill allowed no runs in six innings on three hits and two walks, striking out five.
Hagerstown 4, West Virginia 1: Ivan Pineyro allowed one run in six innings on three hits and a walk, striking out four. Wil Piwnica-Worms went 0 for 2 with two walks. Khayyan Norfork went 1 for 5 with a double.