UPDATED 6:55 p.m.
Sitting two games under .500 with the second-lowest scoring offense in the major leagues, the Nationals fired hitting coach Rick Eckstein Monday afternoon and replaced him with minor league hitting instructor Rick Schu in a move that created discord at the top of the organization. Manager Davey Johnson disagreed with General Manager Mike Rizzo’s decision, telling Rizzo he could fire him instead if he wanted.
Johnson will stay – “I’m not quitting,” he said – but Rizzo pushed ahead with his plan to spark a Nationals’ offense that scored 24 runs in the past 10 games. Johnson informed Eckstein late Monday morning he would be fired. Later, he called Monday one of his most difficult days in his five decades in major league baseball.
“It was a shocker,” Johnson said. “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. But today is arguably the toughest day I’ve had in baseball.”
Johnson had been a staunch supporter of Eckstein, who had been the Nationals coach since 2008. “If you want to fire the hitting coach, you might as well fire me right with him,” Johnson said in mid-June. Even Saturday night, Johnson called Eckstein “the best hitting instructor” he had ever worked with.
“Even in my discussions about firing Rick, I said, ‘There’s other options,’ ” Johnson said. “ ‘You could do away with me if you want to change the scenery or change the philosophy.’ ”
“We’re not gonna fire Davey Johnson,” Rizzo said. “He’s one of the best managers that ever managed. He’s a pro. He’s been through a lot of this stuff before. We’re not worried about our manager. He’s one of the best in baseball, and I trust him.”
Rizzo told Eckstein to call him if he ever wanted to work for the Nationals in the future. For now, he no longer entrusted the man in charge of his offense. The Nationals rank 29th in the majors in scoring with 3.69 runs per game, ahead of only the Miami Marlins. They fall near or at the bottom in most every offensive category, including a .300 on-base percentage that ranks 28th.
“We often say, it’s a performance game,” Rizzo said. “The offense wasn’t performing. I felt that it was time to get a new voice, a new dynamic, a new energy.”
The voice will belong to Schu, whom the Nationals first hired in November 2009. The hire belonged to Rizzo — Johnson said he was not involved in Schu’s promotion. Schu planned to join the Nationals on Tuesday.
“Rick Eckstein is a fine hitting coach,” Rizzo said. “He’s a major league caliber hitting coach. A lot of this falls on the players. This is a players’ league. The players are paid to perform, and they haven’t. The voice of that, and the guy in charge of that, I thought we needed a different perspective and a different way of doing things.”
Eckstein, the brother of 2006 World Series MVP David Eckstein, oversaw the Nationals’ offensive surge in the second half of last season. Many players underperformed this year, particularly the bench Rizzo assembled. But Eckstein, known for his diligence, accepted full responsibility for the Nationals’ inability to turn their season around.
“It’s the nature of the business that we’re in,” Eckstein said. “I look back and I’m very proud of the fact that I gave every ounce of my ability every day. I can say that with 100 percent confidence. At the end of the day, it’s about production. It doesn’t matter how hard I work. It doesn’t matter how good of a person I am. At the end of the day, it’s how well people do. That’s kind of a tough pill, but that’s the pill I chose when I accepted the hitting coach position.”
The season’s final 64 games will determine how much difference it makes. Nationals hitters uniformly suggested their own failings forced the Nationals to make a decision. Pinch hitter Chad Tracy called Eckstein a “scapegoat” in a season that began with huge expectations and now finds the Nationals in third place.
“Just from looking at the offense we got and the numbers, something’s not adding up,” first baseman Adam LaRoche said. “And again, it comes on us. We’re the ones that should be sent down for a couple weeks. The game doesn’t work like that. Somebody’s got to take the fall, and it happened to Eck.”
Many players also wondered about the difference a hitting coach could make. Shortstop Ian Desmond even preemptively said a hot streak should not discredit Eckstein.
“Unfortunately, pretty much all of us have been in slumps at the same time,” Desmond said. “In a sense, I feel that is a good thing, because when we do get hot, when we do start doing it, it’s going to be really good. When that time does come, it shouldn’t be that, ‘Rick Eckstein was the one at fault for us not hitting.’ Because it’s inevitable this team is going to hit. We are going to drive in runs. That is a fact. At some point, it’s going to happen. I really feel like at the big league level, not that the hitting coach is irrelevant, but the players are prepared enough to where they should be able to handle themselves on their own.”
Rizzo said Schu’s hitting philosophy will draw from “the same playbook” as Eckstein. Johnson frequently noted he helped shape Eckstein’s views on hitting and that they shared a viewpoint.
“They’re all pulling from the same playbook,” Rizzo said. “When you’ve heard the message for five years, maybe hearing it a different way has an effect.”
Said third baseman Ryan Zimmerman: “When you get to this level, it’s your job to hit. When we don’t do our job, it’s nobody’s fault but our own.
Monday morning, Johnson finished his discussion with Rizzo and looked for Eckstein. He found his former coach in the weight room. Eckstein became known for his tireless work. He could mimic all of hitter’s swings so he could feel what they felt. He and Johnson often stayed late after games, discussing the best way to draw talent out of their players.
“I felt like I had to be the one to tell him,” Johnson said. “I owed him that much respect. It didn’t make it any easier.”
Bench coach Randy Knorr said it felt like the team had lost a family member. Desmond thought about the days he spent in the dugout with Eckstein when 15,000 fans filled Nationals Park and they lost most every night.
“Rick was a part of something really special here,” Desmond said.
Said catcher Wilson Ramos: “It was bad news. I saw everybody walking around the clubhouse with the face not happy. We don’t feels good right now. We have to keep fighting and keep working.
“I feel like a part of me is gone, too,” Johnson said.
Eckstein did not know when his next job would come. He just knew he would not be at the park Monday night.
“I’m going to take my wife Caroline and my daughter Isabel and we’re going to spend some time together,” Eckstein said. “After that, I don’t have a clue. We’ll see if people reach out. We’ll see what they think of me and see if they want to employ me.”