Nationals banking on new offensive philosophy
After four-game setback, club expects, needs bats to heat up down stretch
WASHINGTON -- During their current four-game losing streak, the Nationals haven't been able to give their pitchers much run support. In fact, the team is 30-for-136 (.221) with five RBIs during the skid.
It didn't help that shortstop Ian Desmond (knee) and outfielder Michael Morse (hand) missed most of the time with injuries. But after watching his team get swept by the Phillies this past weekend, manager Davey Johnson doesn't seem to be worried about his team's recent slump. After all, the Nats have the best record in baseball and are still 4 1/2 games ahead of the Braves in the National League East.
"They have a good ballclub over here," Johnson said after the series finale in Philadelphia. "Cliff Lee pitched one heck of a game, threw a lot of changeups. It was a little different pitcher out there. ... He was a complete pitcher today. I thought he was outstanding.
"We are two players short -- minus two pretty good players, and they are not available. At times we played with one man down. Now we are playing two men down."
Before the losing streak, the Nationals were one of the most productive teams in the NL, while batting .263 since May 1.
"For the most part, during that [winning] stretch, we were healthy, guys were going out and expressing their talents and doing a great job," hitting coach Rick Eckstein said.
In the previous two-plus seasons, Washington was ranked in the bottom 10 in offense. So what is different this year? The team has a new philosophy about hitting when compared to Jim Riggleman's managerial tenure.
According to Johnson, the Nats had too many hitters trying to hit the ball to the opposite field, and it made the players vulnerable on inside pitches. Johnson made it clear that Eckstein did not have this philosophy, having often been overruled by the previous regime.
"To a man, we got a little too much concerned about hitting the ball the other way," Johnson said recently. "I think the regime before liked everybody to go the other way. We really couldn't handle fastballs [inside]. We didn't hit the ball where it was pitched. We have the talent to hit the ball where it was pitched, but we were a little defensive. ... We had the book on us -- 'Pound them in with hard stuff' -- and we weren't able to do much."
Eckstein declined to talk about the Riggleman era but said he and Johnson are on the same page when it comes to hitting. Like Johnson, Eckstein wants the players to hit the ball based on where it is pitched, which they have been doing most of the season.
"The way I feel as a coach is that you want to put yourself in position to have each one of your guys reach their potential, and Davey has been a great asset in cultivating that and helping me with my job," Eckstein said. "Davey has been invaluable to the whole team, to the whole process. I can't say enough things about Davey."
Outfielder Jayson Werth said the Nationals have a much more balanced lineup. Last year, Washington had a right-handed-oriented lineup. That has changed with left-handed sluggers such as Bryce Harper and a healthy Adam LaRoche in the batting order this season.
"[We're] a really tough team to match up with," Werth said. "Other than that, I would say the guys kind of gained experience coming into their own a little bit, getting confidence. When you have a manager like Davey behind it, it works."
According to Werth, Johnson instills confidence in his players, and it affects their attitude.
"Between last year and this year, it's night and day," Werth said. "Just the whole atmosphere in the clubhouse. You have an iconic manager that really knows how to handle this team. If we still had a guy like Riggleman as the manager, I don't think the team is where it's at."
Asked why he felt that way, Werth said, "You have a guy [in Johnson] that is confident in himself and in his players. That alone can go a long way. ... Being a big league player for so long, being a big league manager for so long, Davey has a real good feel [for the game]."
Under Johnson, players such as Desmond and Werth have been consistent with the bat all year, while Danny Espinosa is having a productive second half of the season, hitting .284 since the All-Star break.
"Rick Eckstein has done a great job and got them to stay inside, hit the ball where it was pitched," Johnson said. "They don't have to cheat to get to the fastball. Just become better hitters. We are not 100 percent where we need to be. We still have certain hitters who still have lapses going back. I call it a defensive swing, a longer swing, when we face a really good pitcher. Unless we are in that attack mode, we can be pitched to."
But despite the past four games, things are clearly different this season in Washington, and the Nats expect the offense to get back on track beginning in Miami on Tuesday.
Bill Ladson is a reporter for MLB.com and writes an MLBlog, All Nats All the time. He also could be found on Twitter @WashingNats. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.