Dec 28, 2013, 6:00 AM EDT
As we count down the final days of 2013, we are counting down the 10 most significant moments of the year for the Nationals. These aren’t necessarily positive (or negative) moments, and some didn’t even take place on the field. All, though, were significant in the big picture and defined the Nationals’ year. We continue today with significant moment No. 4: The midseason firing of hitting coach Rick Eckstein…
Rick Eckstein had no greater supporter than Davey Johnson, who first worked with the young hitting coach as a member of Johnson’s Team USA staff during the 2008 Olympics in Beijing. And there was no more emphatic display of that support than Johnson’s public statement in early July when asked about Eckstein’s shaky job status.
“If you fired him,” the veteran manager said, “you might as well fire me.”
Two weeks later, with his club in a freefall in part due to a punch-less lineup, Mike Rizzo decided he had no choice but to make a change against Johnson’s wishes. After watching the Nationals score five total runs during a three-game sweep at the hands of the Dodgers, Rizzo fired Eckstein (who held the job since 2009) and replaced him with minor-league hitting coordinator Rick Schu.
“This was a general manager’s decision,” Rizzo said that afternoon. “I respect Davey to the point where I run everything that we do by him, but there’s certain things that we may not agree on and this was one of them. I felt we needed a change, so I made the change.”
Johnson didn’t hide his displeasure with Rizzo’s decision.
“I’ve experienced a lot of things in my career,” he said. “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. I respect Rick Eckstein, I think he’s a great coach. I think he’s one of, if not the best hitting instructor in baseball. He’s just a great gentleman and a great man. It hurts.”
How much did it hurt Johnson? So much that he suggested that Rizzo fire him instead. That, of course, didn’t happen. But the relationship between Johnson and Rizzo probably wasn’t the same after the incident, and some questioned if the Eckstein firing left Johnson unmotivated the rest of the season.
Nationals players voiced their support for Eckstein as well, insisting they were to blame for the team’s hitting woes and that a change of coaches was unlikely to change results in the batter’s box.
Whether the move made a direct difference or not, there’s no debating the Nationals’ improved offensive performance over the remainder of the season. In 98 games under Eckstein, they hit a collective .240 with a .300 on-base percentage and scored an average of 3.7 runs per game. In 64 games under Schu, they hit .267 with a .331 on-base percentage and scored 4.6 runs per game.
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