Rick Schu has 65 games left in the regular season to jump-start the Nationals stagnant offense. The Nationals fired longtime hitting coach Rick Eckstein on Monday, a move that Manager Davey Johnson disagreed with, and turned to roving minor league hitting instructor Schu, a former major league hitting coach, to help turn around a struggling offense that is a major reason the Nats are under .500.
“I don’t feel the pressure,” said Schu, standing along the railing in the Nationals dugout in his first meeting with reporters at Nationals Park. “This team is real capable of getting back in it. You get on a hot streak and this team is real explosive. Got great pitching. It’s a strange game. You never know what can happen. I’m glad I got an opportunity to be part of it.”
Schu, 51, was in Jupiter, Fla., on Monday watching and coaching the Nationals’ Gulf Coast League affiliate when General Manager Mike Rizzo called to inform him he was being promoted to the majors. The news, Schu admitted, was surprising. Schu was in the middle of a doubleheader and by the end of the day he was in Washington. He arrived at Nationals Park at 11 a.m. on Tuesday and sat down to talk with Johnson.
Schu remembers Johnson from his playing days (“He was sitting in that dugout all those years the Mets were kicking our butts over Philadelphia,” he said) and from his four years in the Nationals organization as a hitting coach. Schu even reached out to Eckstein as he has been fired as a hitting coach himself in the past.
“The one thing I wanted Rick to do and what he did was to communicate and listen to all the hitting instructors’ philosophies and everybody is pretty much on the same page,” Johnson said of his meeting with Schu. “I feel like there’s not going to be any hiccups there.”
Johnson shot down the idea that the firing of Eckstein would damage his relationship with Rizzo, who made the decision to make the coaching change.
“He’s my boss,” Johnson said. “I’ve got the military mentality. Hand down the orders and I carry them out. I still have a great deal of respect for him. I think he’s one of the better GMs in baseball and we don’t always have to agree on everything.”
Schu, who was the Arizona Diamondbacks hitting coach in 2004 and from mid-2007 to mid-2009, may not arrive with a wholly new hitting philosophy but he has clear ideas on how to help turn around the Nationals’ offense. He noted several times that the Nationals need to return to how they are capable of hitting and, simply, to relax. “Try not to get five hits in four at-bats and just kinda take one AB at a time and kinda slow things down a little bit,” he said.
He described his coaching philosophy as a “little bit of everything” and he is malleable to the needs of the hitters. But he has ideas on how to get the Nationals offense on track, which he said will soon get on a roll with a few productive games. He wants the Nationals to control the strike zone, score runners from third base and put the ball in play with two strikes.
“I want to hunt fastballs, keep it simple, stay aggressive,” he said. “I’d like to us put the ball in play a little bit more. We’ve got four teams in first place in the minor leagues. It’s not so much from being more talented but from committing to the team concept and moving runners and putting the ball in play with two strikes, grinding at-bats. I think that’s what this team is capable of doing and we’ve got to get back to it. I think when you try so hard at times it gets difficult and makes things wore and just kinda compounds.”
Schu also arrives with experience. Not only has he been a hitting coach, he is a nine-year major league veteran who spent most of his career with the Philadelphia Phillies as an infielder. He has been a prospect, a bench player, an everyday player and an American playing in Japan. (Eckstein never played in the minors or majors because of an injury in college.) “I’ve kinda been through all the players go through so I can relate to ‘em,” Schu said.
Schu also has existing relationships with many of the Nationals players and is familiar with their swings and habits. He was one of Bryce Harper’s first coaches after he was drafted, and worked with Steve Lombardozzi, Roger Bernadina and Anthony Rendon in the minor leagues. He has also spent time with Wilson Ramos and Jayson Werth while they were on extended minor league rehab assignments.
“I got my guys here,” he said. “Hopefully we can get ‘em right and get ‘em going.”