July 2013

Thoughts from the clubhouse on Eckstein’s firing

By Tom Schad | Associate Reporter

After watching his offense score five runs in three games against the Dodgers, Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo decided that it was time for a change. He fired hitting coach Rick Eckstein, who was in his ninth season with the club, including his fifth as hitting coach.

Manager Davey Johnson was not happy about the move, calling Monday “arguably the toughest day I’ve had in baseball.” Here’s what some of the players had to say:

Chad Tracy: “A lot of us feel like we had some responsibility in him being let go. There’s nobody on this coaching staff that works harder than Rick Eckstein. It’s unfortunate just because it’s not his fault. I think he’s a great guy, first of all. He’ll land on his feet somewhere. There’s no doubt about that. And I really enjoyed having him around here the last two years.”

Adam LaRoche: “It’s unfortunate for we, the offense, to put them in a position where they have to make the move. He’s a great hitting coach, there’s nothing he could have done. It’s on us. It’s hard to send your whole offense down to the minors.”

Ian Desmond: “Rick was part of something really special here. It gets hard to remember that a couple of years ago there were 15,000 or 20,000 people in the stands and a sub-.500 team getting run out there every day. With Rick we got better, we continued to get better and we ended up winning a division title. I think he’s got four or five Silver Sluggers on his resume. He’s done a lot of special things and he’s obviously a very good hitting coach. But this is a very cutthroat business and it’s all about what have you done for me lately. Unfortunately for him, he had to go.”

LaRoche: “You want a hitting coach who’s in the cage all day long, always there waiting for guys to come down there. I don’t think you could ever walk in that cage anytime of the day and not see Eck in there.”

Desmond: “I think one of the best qualities of Rick was that he was the epitome of a team player. If I said, ‘Rick I want to go out and hit in some rain and lightning,’ he would do it.”

Ryan Zimmerman: “It’s tough. It’s part of the professional business. When things don’t happen on the field, things like this have to happen. But it’s the players’ fault. We’re the ones not hitting, we’re the ones not scoring runs. When it comes down to it, no hitting coach or pitching coach can do anything about this but us.”

Tracy: “I don’t think anybody can blame Rick Eckstein for any of the woes that we’ve had on the offensive side. And Rick Schu, he’s been around a lot of us, so he knows our swings. I’m sure he’s probably looking at a lot of them on video as we speak to try to get familiar before he gets here. It may change the atmosphere around here. And it may not. We don’t know. But we’ll move on and flip the page and keep playing baseball.”

Zimmerman: “I’ve hit the same way since I was ten years old. When you get to this level, it’s your job to hit. We get paid a lot of money to hit and do our job. … No coach is going to come in here and turn someone who isn’t a .300 hitter into a .300 hitter. When you get to this level, you are what you are.”

Do the Nats need a team meeting?

By Tom Schad | Associate Reporter

When Ian Desmond struck out in the bottom of the ninth inning on Sunday, mercifully ending the most disappointing series of a disappointing Nationals season, the numbers pretty much said it all.

Over three games against the Dodgers, the Nationals scored five runs. They hit a lowly .223, a full 17 points below their season average (.240), which is already fourth-worst in the Major Leagues. And with runners in scoring position, they were even worse: 2-for-26 (0.77).

“There’s nobody to blame besides us, no coaches, no anything like that,” third baseman Ryan Zimmerman said. “The bottom line is all of us, myself including, haven’t been producing like we should and that’s what happens.”

The Nationals were swept in a three-game series for the first time since mid-April. Still, Kurt Suzuki doesn’t think the series was as terrible as it seems.

“We could’ve easily won the first two games. We could’ve easily won the series,” he said. “Things didn’t go our way, and that’s what happens in baseball. You’ve just got to get back on the saddle. That’s a good team over there.”

To a man, the Nationals have maintained that the offense will eventually come around. It’s a long season. They’ll go on a run. It’s only a matter of time.

But after Sunday’s loss, you couldn’t help but wonder whether the Nationals should trade that patience for a heightened sense of urgency. One reporter asked Zimmerman, one of the team’s unquestioned leaders, whether he needed to call a team meeting.

“Pep talks don’t work for grownups,” he said. “The truth is you go out and you play the game the same way as you do every night. We go out there and we try and win every game, and this year obviously hasn’t worked out like we’ve wanted it to work out so far, but to have a meeting and tell people — I don’t know what we would tell them. You can’t tell them to play harder, you can’t tell them to try harder, and that’s really the only thing that those meetings are good for.

“Bottom line is we just need to go out and win games. Everyone can talk about whatever they want to talk about, but we got to go out and win.”

After tough loss, Nats aren’t concerned about morale

By Tom Schad | Associate Reporter

This weekend’s series against the Dodgers was supposed to represent a fresh start, a time for the Nationals to turn the corner on their disappointing first half and go on a run after the All-Star break.

But after Rafael Soriano gave up a solo home run in the ninth inning of a 3-2 loss Friday night, the Nationals suffered another crushing defeat on Saturday night. They collected 10 hits but only scored one run, going 1-for-12 with runners in scoring position and squandering six scoreless innings by Gio Gonzalez.

“I’m sure everyone’s sick of hearing it, but it’s got to turn around at some point,” shortstop Ian Desmond said. “And if it doesn’t, then we’re going to keep on trying until we run out of time.”

As the Nationals continue to tread water around the .500 mark, questions have surfaced about the team’s morale. But Desmond, for one, isn’t worried.

“I think we’re doing fine,” he said. “I don’t think you could do any better than what we’re doing. I think a lot of teams under the situation that we’re in would probably be a little bit more distressed inside the clubhouse than what we’ve been. I think we’re doing a pretty good job, and I think that will pay off in the end.”

Manager Davey Johnson offered a different view.

“The only thing that helps morale is when you do the things you’re capable of doing,” he said. “It’s kind of hard to be happy if you’re not doing what you’re capable of doing. I mean, loud music and jumping up and down [won’t help] … the only cure for it is to go out and express that talent. Make it happen.”

The Nationals are a young team, with eight of their 25 players under the age of 25. But with Desmond, Jayson Werth, Adam LaRoche and others, they also have a significant veteran presence.

“I think this is a clubhouse put together on gamers, and gamers don’t just throw the towel in,” Desmond said. “I don’t think there’s a guy in here that’s ready to surrender the season or do anything like that. We’ve got some winners, we’ve got some grinders, and we’ve got some really good ball players. It’s just a matter of time.”

Chad Tracy continues to struggle

By Tom Schad | Associate Reporter

As the July 31 trade deadline rapidly approaches, Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo and manager Davey Johnson will have the opportunity to make a few changes to the roster. Acquiring a left-handed hitter and letting go of pinch-hitter Chad Tracy could very well be one of them.

The nine-year Major League veteran might be the most disappointing player on a disappointing Nationals bench. After an 0-for-4 performance in a rare start on Friday night, he is hitting a career-worst .149 (13-for-87), which is nearly 90 points below his previous career-low (.237 in 2009).

“I’ve had some big pinch-hits, but as far as playing when I’m getting the start, I haven’t done enough with it,” he said. “It is very frustrating.”

Tracy was brought to Washington for a few specific reasons. He backs up first baseman Adam LaRoche and third baseman Ryan Zimmerman. He’s a savvy veteran in the clubhouse. And he’s a left-handed bat off the bench.

Those roles, however, can be filled in other ways. The Nationals could bring up a much younger power hitter from Triple-A Syracuse, like Tyler Moore or Chris Marrero. They could give versatile infielder and switch-hitter Danny Espinosa another shot. Or they could look outside the organization for another veteran left-handed bat.

The simple fact is that Tracy is a career .273 hitter who hasn’t hit .273 since 2006. In two years with the Nationals, he is hitting .211 with a .270 OBP. He is 33 years old and likely will not factor into the team’s long-term plans. And with only 13 hits this season (three home runs) and no signs of a turnaround, Tracy knows that the Nationals might decide to go in a different direction.

“Any time you don’t get at-bats strung together it’s tough, you start in the hole,” Tracy said. “But that’s why I’m here. I’m a veteran guy, I’ve been through it before so I should be able to make the adjustment. And I just haven’t done it.”

Nats’ Zimmermann not playing in All-Star Game

Nationals right-hander Jordan Zimmermann has decided not to play in the 2013 All-Star Game because of tightness in his neck. Zimmermann will, however, take his family to the event at Citi Field in New York and suit up for the National League in Tuesday’s Midsummer Classic.

Zimmermann had an MRI taken on Friday and it revealed that he had an issue with some soft tissues in the neck, according manager Davey Johnson.  Zimmerman last pitched on Thursday, throwing 6 1/3 innings and allowing two runs in 3-1 loss to the Phillies. <p>

“I rather be healthy than go out there and just pitch one inning and then have the whole second half shot,” Zimmermann said. “I think taking a few days  off, no throwing  and rest, we’ll be good to go.” <p> Zimmerman has had problems with the neck since the middle of May. He woke up one day and the neck started to hurt.

“I don’t know if I strained a muscle  or what the deal is,” Zimmermann said.  “I would wake up in the morning and it would be pretty stiff. As the day goes on, it’s gets better. Obviously, looking towards home, looking to first, I can feel the tightness in [the neck]. I don’t think it affects anything, but it’s a nuisance.”

Johnson spoke  to Giants manager Bruce Bochy on Friday afternoon and Johnson recommended that Gio Gonzalez, Stephen Strasburg or Rafael Soriano be considered for the All-Star team.

Gonzalez has pitched effectively for more than two months and looks like the pitcher that won 20 games for Washington last year. He has allowed two earned runs or fewer in 11 of his last 13 starts. He has a 2.18 ERA since May 1.

In fact, Gonzalez said Strasburg deserved to go to the Midsummer Classic. Despite having a losing record, Strasburg has  2.45 ERA, which ranks sixth in the Major Leagues.

As for Soriano, he came to the Nationals as advertised, leading the team in saves with 24 and has a 2.13 ERA.

Update: The Nats acquire Scott Hairston from Cubs

WASHINGTON — In need of a right-handed hitter off the bench, the Nationals have acquired outfielder Scott Hairston from the Cubs, a baseball source confirmed. It’s not known who the Cubs are getting in return. The Nationals have yet to confirm the report.

Hairston will provide power off the bench, something which has been lacking all season for the Nats. Before the trade, Hairston was hitting .163 with seven home runs and 18 RBIs. He will be reunited with general manager Mike Rizzo, who drafted Hairston in the third round of the 2001 First-Year Player Draft.

Hairston’s best season in the big leagues was in 2009, when he hit a combined .265 with 17 home runs and 64 RBIs for the Athletics and Padres. Last year with the Mets, Hairston hit 20 home runs despite only starting 86 games.

Hairston comes from a baseball family. His older brother is Dodgers infielder Jerry Hairston Jr., who played for the Nationals in 2011. His father, Jerry Sr., played with the White Sox during the 1970s and grandfather, Sam Hairston, played for the Birmingham Black Barons and the Indianapolis Clowns of the Negro Leagues. Sam also played for the White Sox in the 1950s.

As one baseball source put it a couple of weeks ago, the Nationals needed to go out and get a veteran right-handed hitter for the bench. The team started the season hoping that Tyler Moore could provide power off the bench, but he has struggled mightily, batting .157 with 38 strikeouts in 102 at-bats. The Nats feel Moore is better suited as an everyday player, and that could happen with Triple-A Syracuse.

The Nationals are probably not done acquiring bench players. The source indicated that Washington is looking to acquire a second right-handed hitter to add more depth.

Besides Moore, the Nationals feel that Steve Lombardozzi is better suited as an everyday player. He, too, has struggled coming off the bench this season.

Reports: Nats acquire Scott Hairston

By Tom Schad | Associate Reporter

The Nationals have sought a power-hitting, right-handed bat for their bench, and they got one late Sunday night.

According to Ken Rosenthal of FOX Sports, the Nationals have acquired Cubs outfielder Scott Hairston in exchange for a minor-league pitcher. Hairston, 33, is hitting just .172 with eight home runs this season. He hit a pinch-hit homer in the eighth inning of the Chicago’s 4-3 extra-innings win over the Pirates on Sunday.

Hairston is a 10-year Major League veteran who has spent time with the Diamondbacks, Padres, Mets, Athletics and Cubs. The 6-foot, 205-pound outfielder signed a two-year, $5 million contract with the Cubs in January.

Hairston has a bit of power (averages 20 home runs per 162 games) and he feels particularly comfortable against left-handed pitchers (.268 career average). He is 15-for-47 (.319) in 17 career games at Nationals Park.

The move will be announced Monday morning, according to Rosenthal. Hairston will likely replace outfielder Roger Bernadina or outfielder/first baseman Tyler Moore on the Nationals’ bench.

After two tough outings, Storen bounces back

By Tom Schad | Associate Reporter

After a pair of disappointing performances, the cheers for Nationals reliever Drew Storen started sounding less like “Drewwwwww” and more like “Boooooo.”

Storen gave up four runs in one inning on Tuesday against the Brewers and three runs — including two homers — on the Fourth of July. He looked like a shell of his former self, hanging breaking balls over the middle of the plate and ignoring pitching coach Steve McCatty on visits to the mound. His ERA increased to 5.40 from 3.82.

Then, with a one run lead against the Padres on Saturday, Storen retired the side with five pitches.

“That’s what I was talking about,” manager Davey Johnson said. “His stuff is too good. He doesn’t need to try to trick ’em. He said, ‘Here’ and that was the highlight film of my day.”

Storen threw one pitch each to Carlos Quentin and Chase Headley, both of whom lined out to third baseman Ryan Zimmerman. Then Storen struck out Jesus Guzman with three pitches: two sinking fastballs and a slider.

“Anytime you can get it right to contact and get them to hit it right to guys, especially on a hot day, you can’t complain about that,” Storen said. “You knew you just had to attack guys in the zone. You sink it down in the zone. Hopefully those guys hit it on the ground and let our defense take care of it.”

Johnson and McCatty have noticed a change in Storen’s approach the season. The Nationals’ skipper has told his former close to stop throwing and start pitching, trust his fastball and attack hitters. After Saturday’s outing, Storen said that he got the message loud and clear.

“I thought he had a good point,” Storen said. “I’m trying to pitch around guys. I have good enough stuff. I just need to attack hitters and we have a great defense behind you. There’s no reason to be pitching around anybody.”

Nationals need production at No. 2

By Tom Schad | Associate Reporter

At 9:30 p.m. on Wednesday, Nationals manager Davey Johnson had an epiphany. He called Ian Desmond and told the shortstop that he would be swapping spots in the lineup with right fielder Jayson Werth. Desmond would hit second, Werth sixth.

When asked why he made the switch, Johnson didn’t have much of an answer.

“I don’t know,” he said. “Because I’m supposed to do something.”

On Thursday, Desmond and Werth went a combined 6-for-7 with four runs scored. On Friday, they went 4-for-8.

“I like the energy Desi brings down there,” Johnson said, “and Jayson seems to relish where he’s hitting, too.”

It was a subtle change, but an important one. Entering Friday’s game, the Nationals had gotten the least production out of the No. 2 spot in the order in club history. No. 2 hitters are batting .222 this year with a .268 on-base percentage and a .608 OPS. Since the franchise arrived in Washington in 2005, those marks rank second to last, last and last in team history.

Johnson said Friday that this lineup probably isn’t permanent, but it should be. Desmond, a career .273 hitter, has hit .285 in the No. 2 spot while in the Majors. Werth’s average in the No. 2 hole, however, is significantly lower than his career norm. When he bats second, his average is .243 compared to .268 overall.

Johnson admits that Werth has a different approach when he hits lower in the lineup.

“I think he likes that. I think he also likes the fact that five or six, you generally have a lot of guys on,” Johnson said. “He’s more aggressive when he’s in that spot. And I like that about him.”

Davey goes in-depth on the lineup

By Tom Schad | Associate Reporter

For the second straight night, Nationals manager Davey Johnson was able to fill out a lineup card on Tuesday that was just a catcher short of the ideal order that he has envisioned for weeks. He again slid Jayson Werth into the No. 2 slot and dropped Anthony Rendon to seventh.

As with most managerial decisions, Johnson’s shuffle of the order brought plenty of questions. And as with most good baseball questions, Johnson had an honest and in-depth response.

He took a few minutes before Tuesday night’s 4-0 loss to the Brewers to fully explain his lineup philosophy, the result of more than 48 years in professional baseball. While much of what Johnson said wasn’t earth-shattering, it was the most complete explanation of the topic that he’s given all season.

Here’s what he had to say:

“You want your guys who get on base a lot to lead off, hit second. Ideally, you’d have your highest on-base guy hitting first. But then you’ve got to factor in run-producers, the guys who hit the ball out of the ballpark, get the extra-base hits. So when you put together a lineup, a lot of times the guy who walks and bunts and has a smaller strike zone will have a higher on-base percentage, so those are generally the guys you hit one or two, get them on base. And also, you can get them in motion. Then the category is run-producers.

“It changes. Jayson Werth last year with the bad hand was more of a table-setter than a run-producer, and so he was ideally a leadoff-type guy. I think he was on base about 35 percent of the time. And this year, hitting No. 2, his wrist is back, he’ll have more power. But if he’s doing his thing, he’ll still get on base a lot. And then there’s some run-producers behind him. And also, when you have a bunch of left-handers in the lineup, you want to break them up. You go by the on-base percentage a lot.

“It just depends obviously if you don’t have guys in the lineup that can get on base. The worst thing that can happen is when you’ve got a guy hitting .240 and he’s on base 26 percent of the time and you have him leading off because he can run. It ain’t going to help if he’s never on. And the guys — it’s pretty easy — the guys that don’t get on base and don’t produce runs I classify as kind of second division players.

“I’ve put together a lot of teams just by looking at numbers. I don’t have to look at the player, I can look at his number — putting together an Olympic team, a U.S. team for the World Cup or whatever — you can pretty much look at the statistics on a guy and know [whether] he’s a one-two hitter, he’s a three-four hitter and such before you even see the guy swing.”