Johnson, Rizzo say Eckstein doesn’t deserve blame for Nats’ offensive woes

PHILADELPHIA - We’ve gone over the Nationals’ sub-par offensive numbers countless times to this point.

They’ve scored 3.47 runs per game, the second-fewest of any team in the majors. They have the second-lowest on-base percentage in the big leagues at .291. Their team OPS is .666, fourth-worst in Major League Baseball.

This team continues to struggle putting runs on the board, leading some to question the job security of hitting coach Rick Eckstein. But while Eckstein might be a popular figure for fans to blame, manager Davey Johnson isn’t pointing the finger at his hitting coach, or any other one guy, for that matter.

“He’s one of the most outstanding hitting instructors I’ve been around - conscientious, hard-working,” Johnson said. “If anything, he works too hard. But if you want to fire the hitting coach, you might as well fire me right with him. Because he’s got the same philosophy I do, as far as hitting goes. ...

“(Blaming Eckstein is) placing the blame where it doesn’t belong. Like I tell these guys in the spring, take care of No. 1. Don’t worry about anybody else. Just be as good as you can be. Anything else, I’ll worry about you as a group. If you’ve got any problems, I’m a problem solver. The main job is you guys being as good as you can be when you step on that ball field.

“It’s all about adjustments. With all the technology, the pitchers can have one way to get you out one day. If you have some success, they change. You need to make those adjustments. If you’re a breaking ball hitter your whole life and now all of a sudden they’re throwing you fastballs, you need to make that adjustment. But it’s an individual adjustment. A coach for the whole group is not going to solve the problem for the individuals.”

That’s a message that general manager Mike Rizzo echoes. Both Rizzo and Johnson have been through this process in past years; the offense struggles early in a season, people call for Eckstein to be fired, and they defend him.

Last season, the Nats ended up finishing 10th in runs scored and eighth in OPS, and over the final five weeks of the season (34 games, to be exact), they averaged 5.3 runs per game.

“I never attribute the success or failure of the offense directly to one person,” Rizzo said. “I think it’s unfair. I think they take too much criticism when something goes wrong. I think they get too much credit when things go good.

“We’ve done this dance several years in a row with the media and the fans. I think it was around this time the last couple of years that people have been wondering when we’re going to fire Rick Eckstein. And it seems at the end of the day, the players always reach their career numbers and they get to where we thought they were. And I think it’s going to happen this year.”

Johnson said he was studying the numbers recently and noticed two things: The Nats had averaged just 3.76 runs per game to this point last season, compared to their 3.47 runs per game this year; and that the overall team ERA last season was 2.95, compared to 3.63 this season.

His point? While the offense has dropped off from where it was at last season, so has the pitching. The Nats also have allowed 26 unearned runs last year, compared to 19 last year, another indication that the defense has dropped off, as well.

“So it’s not just the offense,” Johnson said. “Pretty much a lot of the aspects, we’re just not performing to what we did last year. Do we have the potential to do that and more? Yeah. Last year we took off around this time and started jelling as a unit, both sides of the deal.”

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