WASHINGTON -- The Washington Nationals fired hitting coach Rick Eckstein on Monday, a move manager Davey Johnson called "a shocker" in spite of the team's offensive woes this season.
Washington entered Monday night's game against the Pittsburgh Pirates stuck in a three-game losing streak and with a disappointing 48-50 record. The team is tied for 28th overall in runs and ranks 27th in batting average.
But Johnson was obviously upset with the decision by general manager Mike Rizzo.
"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," said Johnson, his voice cracking with emotion. "I respect Rick Eckstein. I think he's a great coach, one of the best hitting instructors in baseball. And he's just a great gentleman. So it hurts."
Eckstein was hired as the Nationals' batting coach before the 2009 season. He was the longest-tenured hitting coach in the NL East.
And now he's out of a job.
"Davey and I have a great respect for each other. This was a general manager's decision," Rizzo said. "I respect Davey to the point where I run everything that we do by him. There are certain things that we may not agree on and this was one of them. I thought we needed a change, and so I made the change."
Eckstein was replaced by Rick Schu, who for the past four years has been the team's minor league hitting co-ordinator. Schu was not expected to arrive in Washington until Tuesday.
Schu will be asked to turn around an offence that produced only five runs over the weekend while being swept at home by the Los Angeles Dodgers.
"There's no one solution," third baseman Ryan Zimmerman said. "Everyone just needs to play like they're capable of playing. No coach is going to come in here and turn someone into a .300 hitter who's not a .300 hitter. You are what you are. If we play like we're supposed to play, then we'll score runs."
Rizzo knows this. But he felt the move was necessary anyway.
"Rick Eckstein is a fine hitting coach. A lot of this falls on the players," he said. "The players are paid to perform and they haven't. The voice of that and the guy who's in charge of that, I thought we needed a different perspective. A different way of doing things."
Johnson told Eckstein of the switch on Monday afternoon.
"I felt like I had to be the one to tell him. I owed him that much," the manager said.
Hours later, Johnson still hadn't fully absorbed the move.
"I tell you, it was a shocker," said Johnson, who tried his best to convince Rizzo to change his mind.
"In my discussions about firing Rick, I said there's other options," Johnson said. "You can do it with me if you want to change the scenery or change the philosophy."
Rizzo wouldn't dream of it.
"We're not going to fire Davey Johnson, one of the best managers to have ever managed," Rizzo said. "Davey's a pro, has been through a lot of this stuff before, and you know, we're not worried about our manager. He's one of the best in baseball and I trust him."
Johnson was the only one in the clubhouse disappointed over the move. Catcher Wilson Ramos said, "He helped me a lot with my swing, you know, so that's bad news for me. ... I saw everybody right now walking around the clubhouse with a face, you know, not happy. I tell you, we don't feel good right now."
Schu has 16 years of coaching experience. Before coming to the Nationals, Schu spent parts of four seasons as Arizona's hitting coach.
During that time, he worked with current Washington infielder Chad Tracy.
"I had Rick years ago in Arizona, and I've always felt very highly of him," Tracy said. "Great personality, brings a lot of life and energy to the clubhouse. He's going to bring the same kind of hard-working attitude he had in Arizona. Hopefully, a new face around here will spark something new in us. I think that's what management is looking for."
Sometimes, it's just easier to fire the hitting coach than dump players or the manager.
"The hitting coach position is the most volatile position in Major League Baseball right now," Pirates manager Clint Hurdle said. "And if you don't believe me, just go look it up and check the industry out for the changes that have been made in the last five years. Right before I left Colorado, I had to fire a hitting coach and then hire a new one, so yeah, I think it's the most challenged position."