Thomas Boswell
Thomas Boswell
Columnist

Nationals vs. Braves: Nats are hitting their stride as pennant race heats up

Katherine Frey/THE WASHINGTON POST - Chad Tracy and the Nationals celebrate a long night of baseball, triumphing over NL East rival Atlanta in 13 innings.

Whenever fans see Michael Morse come to the plate to hit, he does a contortion that looks like a flamingo attempting martial arts. What is it? Fans have wondered ever since he began using the hitting tip last year and quickly had his best breakout season as a slugger.

“That’s ‘The Move,’ ” Manager Davey Johnson said on Monday night. It’s the first hitting move, the trigger mechanism that starts the swing, that Hank Aaron taught Johnson in 1973 that transformed him late in his career into a 43-homer hitter. But it is also at the core of a hitting theory that Johnson has gradually infused throughout the Washington Nationals organization, to an enthusiastic response from hitting coach Rick Eckstein and General Manager Mike Rizzo, to players like Morse and Ian Desmond, who have flourished with the approach. Finally, after almost a year of waiting, the Nats have exploded, ranking second in baseball in runs scored since the all-star break entering Monday’s games.

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It better keep working. With Stephen Strasburg due to be shut down fairly soon, the Nats’ offensive evolution needs to continue. Luckily, their transformation is already in its 14th month. Since the day Johnson took over as manager, he vowed to eradicate, root and branch every theory of hitting that he saw the Nats employing when he took the job last June.

Johnson believes “the previous regime” insisted on an almost comical overemphasis on hitting to the opposite field, usually singles. That should slowly be replaced by a focus on all-fields power. He empowered Eckstein to teach hitting the way the coach wanted to, but has never before had across-the-board support.

“This is going to take time,” Johnson told Rizzo. “We have some real bad philosophy in here. It takes time for players to change habits.”

For almost a year, Johnson sounded wacky when he talked about how much hitting talent the Nats had and how sure he was that it would emerge.

Actually, he was “Wack-o,” which became one of Johnson’s nicknames.

“WACK-O!” Johnson would exclaim, walking up to a Nats player and showing him “The Move.” Johnson would smack the back of his left hand downward, from his right shoulder to what would be a waist-high pitch, showing how you could have a short, quick swing that got the bathead’s sweet spot to the ball while it was still at or in front of the plate.

“How’s our ‘dumb’ hitting coach doing these days? He sure seems to be getting smarter,” Rizzo said. With their best possible lineup finally available (except for catcher Wilson Ramos), the Nats seem almost as excited to find out how well they can hit as they are by the pennant race itself.

From now on, the Nats must cope with hot starting rotations, like the Atlanta Braves who are now in Nationals Park, or the strong staffs from Los Angeles, San Francisco or Cincinnati that may wait in October. In order to succeed, they’ll have to keep hitting as they have recently.

In Monday’s series-opening 5-4 win against the Braves, the Nats showed their progress and the work that still remains as the excruciating pressure of late-season games makes hitting far more difficult than mere theory in these close, crucial games.

The Nats greeted their longtime nemesis Tim Hudson with a four-run burst in the first inning, including a Jayson Werth double, Bryce Harper RBI single, Ryan Zimmerman rope single and a first-pitch two-run homer by Desmond, 10 rows deep in the left field bleachers. That captured more of the Nats’ progress: Desmond, who once ignored his power, now has 18 homers.

However, for the next seven innings the Nats absolutely tortured and exasperated their rain-delay-stunted crowd of 21,298. In all, they put 11 men on base vs. Hudson, then six more against the Braves’ fine bullpen. But the hardest hit — the clutch one — was absent.

Desmond killed a two-on rally in the third with a double play, just as Morse trashed a first-and-third one-out rally in the seventh in a 4-4 game with another first-pitch made-to-order double play grounder to short. Werth made the crowd jump to its feet when, with the bases loaded and the count full in the eighth, he drove a ball to the left field warning track — for the final out. An Adam LaRoche fly was caught one foot from the top of the right field fence to start the bottom of the 10th inning, and Werth duplicated the feat in the 11th.

The Nats finally won the game in the 13th inning when Danny Espinosa scored from third while second baseman Dan Uggla, playing in, bobbled a grounder hit straight at him. It was scored a hit, but it was clearly an error. A truly Uggla ending.

Who says there’s no such thing as pressure, even if it’s not September yet? The Braves squandered just as many chances, stranding runners in scoring position in seven innings. They’re a team known for good hitting, but they couldn’t capitalize on eight Nationals walks.

So, the first part of the Nats’ equation has been established. For two months they’ve been getting upper-deck blasts from Morse, Zimmerman, Espinosa, Harper, Desmond and LaRoche. Is it a long-term omen or a novelty, a new theory not fully integrated into many players?

On Monday, before the start of the three-game series against the Braves, Johnson finally explained his thinking fully for the first time. “The previous regime liked everybody to hit the ball the other way [to the opposite field]. We didn’t hit the ball where it was pitched. We were defensive,” Johnson said. “The book on us — I can tell you because everybody knew it — was ‘pound ’em in with hard stuff.’ We weren’t able to do much with it. . . . All pitchers have always tried to keep hitters from extending their arms. We were actually helping them with that.”

Last year a rival coach teased Johnson, saying, “What, you guys don’t like fastballs?” Johnson, knowing the fastball is the one pitch all good hitting teams must attack, answered: “We don’t. Unless it’s way away from us.”

Now, the league can burn that book. “Rick has done a great job. We’re not 100 percent there yet. Certain hitters have lapses,” said Johnson, who isn’t happy unless “we’re in attack mode, quick to the ball, not defensive, not serving the ball to the opposite field with that long looping swing.”

Successful teams have been built on speed, the hit-and-run, opposite-field contact hitting and less power. But that’s not the tradition that Johnson comes out of; he’s learned from Ted Williams, whose brain he picked when he was a young player, and watched Earl Weaver play for three-run homers. When he looked at the physiques and batting-practice blasts of the Nats — even middle infielders Desmond and Espinosa hit 430-foot blasts — Johnson wondered, “What’s going on here?”

“We’ve gotten rid of phrases like ‘Let the ball travel’ and ‘Let it get deep’ in our instruction in the minors,” said Rizzo, who fired one minor league hitting instructor soon after becoming GM; but he couldn’t root out those habits at the big-league level until Johnson subtly encouraged one hitter after another to rethink his approach. Results produced converts.

“Of everything Davey’s done, this may be the biggest,” Eckstein said. “It will have an organizational impact for many years to come.”

For the Nats, the incubation period for Rizzo-Eckstein-Johnson’s hitting ideas has had more than a year to be internalized. As the pitchers the Nats face, for bigger and bigger stakes, get progressively tougher, Washington’s students will be examined day after day.

But there’ll be one difference. They’ll have to apply those new principles in the goose-bump portion of the schedule. Cross one such long tense evening off the schedule, this time a winning one. The same tense test will be administered Tuesday and Wednesday. Then hundreds more times for years to come.

For Thomas Boswell’s previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/boswell.

 
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