PHILADELPHIA — Rick Eckstein emerged from the visitors’ batting cage inside Citizens Bank Park and hopped up the steps to the Washington Nationals’ clubhouse on Wednesday afternoon. Sweat glistened on his forehead as he scurried through the room, head swiveling, eyes wide, searching for the next group of hitters he needed to coax out of slumps. It was a long list.
The title of Nationals hitting coach carries with it a tough job description these days, one made more exasperating with the Nationals’ 7-4 loss to the Philadelphia Phillies before a crowd of 44,123. After Vance Worley allowed one run over six innings and the Phillies’ bullpen shut out Washington for two, a spasm of offense in the ninth salvaged another unsightly offensive showing.
Still, the Nationals have scored just 15 runs in their past six games. They are batting .226 as a team, second-lowest in the majors. Then there’s this: Thursday night, having lost six consecutive games at Citizens Bank, they will face Roy Halladay.
“We’ve won some games with our defense and our pitching, but that only goes so far,” first baseman Adam LaRoche said. “Sooner or later, we’ve got to start swinging the bat. And we haven’t been doing it.”
Manager Jim Riggleman, ejected for arguing a called third strike in the fourth, did not see the final five innings. Eckstein watched all of it from the dugout: the 11 strikeouts and one walk; Jayson Werth’s 1-for-4, two-strikeout night that settled his average at .227; the double by LaRoche — his first hit since April 27 — that scored the Nationals’ lone run in the first eight innings. In the ninth, Matt Stairs continued a small rally with the 100th pinch hit of his career and his first hit, period, of the season, before Danny Espinosa’s three-run homer made the final score respectable.
Eckstein’s gaggle of scuffling charges had not gotten any smaller. Batting average is a narrow appraisal of a player’s value, but at some point it says enough. Wilson Ramos finished the night hitting .344, Laynce Nix .310. Every other Nationals position player in Wednesday’s starting lineup had a batting average of .227 or lower, including leadoff hitter Espinosa (.220) and LaRoche, the cleanup hitter (.186).
As he walked into the clubhouse, General Manager Mike Rizzo said, “I hope they’re ripping that frickin’ place apart.” Nationals players are trying to find the balance between proper irritation and suffocating frustration.
“I’m sure there are some guys, like myself, that are pressing,” Espinosa said. “I want to get on base. I’m sure I’m not the only guy that’s like that.”
Afterward, a team spokesperson said Eckstein did not have time to speak with reporters because he was watching video of his hitters. All Eckstein could do is come back to work Thursday, seek out his hitters and keep trying to solve what’s wrong.
“It’s kind of like the players,” Riggleman said before the game. “If they’re playing hard, that’s all you can ask. Nobody works harder than Rick. I don’t think he would be feeling pressure over it.”
The Nationals sit barely below .500 at 14-16, but signs of their swoon have started to show. In the fourth inning, LaRoche struck out looking for the second time, staring at a knee-high, late-breaking, two-seam fastball that darted from his hip to the inside third of the plate. LaRoche dropped his bat and barked at home plate umpire Alfonso Marquez as he walked back to the dugout.
“Just some frustration,” LaRoche said. “Usually, I don’t show it out on the field.”
Riggleman trudged out of the dugout and took up the fight, motioning for LaRoche to stop talking. Riggleman did not retreat to the dugout when Marquez instructed him to, and quickly was sent to the showers.
If the Nationals need a measure of hope, they can find it in rotten luck. Entering Wednesday, their batting average on balls put in play was .263, 27 points below the league average and second-lowest in the majors. They have made more outs than can reasonably be expected simply by hitting the ball at defenders.
“At some point, you’re going to lose ballgames if we don’t hit,” Riggleman said. “We’ve got to keep our head above water until we unleash it here offensively. And we will.”
Nationals starter Jason Marquis allowed seven runs — six earned — in five-plus innings, three of which scored after he exited, with Brian Broderick relieving. Marquis traded zeros with Worley until the fifth inning, when he allowed three runs, the first on a home run by Raul Ibanez, owner of a 1.117 OPS against the Nationals over the past three seasons. The three-run outburst snapped a 15-inning scoreless streak for Marquis.
“I was leaving balls a hair or two up, and they were getting the barrel to it,” Marquis said. “I think if it’s a hair down, I get the contact that I want. Sometimes, those are the breaks. I got to make better pitches next time.”
He faced four batters in the sixth, all of whom reached base. The inning disintegrated from there. Jimmy Rollins rolled an RBI single up the middle off Broderick. With the bases loaded, Shane Victorino grounded to second baseman Espinosa, who flipped to shortstop Ian Desmond for the second out as a runner scored from third. But Desmond’s relay skipped past LaRoche at first base, allowing another run to come home.
Down by six runs, the Nationals stood scant chance of coming back. They have scored six runs in an entire game seven times this year, once in the past 14 games. Stair’s milestone hit and Espinosa’s blast made the final score respectable, but it could not change the fact that the Nationals are still a team searching for its offense.