Before games, Chad Tracy walks into the Nationals’ batting cage to find the at-bats he misses on the field. Hitting coach Rick Eckstein stands at the base of the mound, maybe 45 feet away from Tracy, and whips the ball over the plate. “I just try to throw it as hard as I can throw it,” Eckstein said.
Tracy has used those unique, simulated at-bats Eckstein provides to stay sharp. Manager Davey Johnson gave him a start today at first base to further help Tracy find a rhythm at the plate. Tracy took 73 at-bats during spring training, more than any Nationals player. He felt comfortable swinging and seeing the ball, and then the season began. Tracy has had 10 at-bats over 15 games and has gone hitless since his two clutch hits to open the season in Chicago. So he has to find a new way to stay fresh at the plate.
“When your consistent at-bats aren’t there anymore,” Tracy said, “the game does tend to be a little tougher.”
That led him to the tunnel between the Nationals’ clubhouse and dugout. Eckstein performs the accelerated batting practice drill with several Nationals players. He’s been doing it for several seasons.
When Adam Dunn played for the Nationals, Eckstein once asked him for the one thing he wanted to improve. Dunn told Eckstein he felt like he too often gave away his first at-bat of the game. “Well,” Eckstein replied, “your first at-bat is with me.” Every game, about 15 minutes before the first pitch, Eckstein and Dunn would hit the cage, with Eckstein chucking the ball at him from roughly the distance of a Little League mound.
Tracy has found the drill just as helpful. From 45 feet away, Eckstein throws sliders, changeups and curveballs. Eckstein can’t throw as hard as a major league pitcher, but from the shortened distance the ball gives Tracy the same reaction time as a 92 or 93 mile per hour fastball. For Tracy, it actually seems more difficult to hit off Rick Eckstein from 45 feet than a major league reliever at 60 feet, 6 inches.
“Whatever he’s featured in there is usually a little bit better than what you’re going to face out there,” Tracy said. “It’s been helpful. He’s got a really good arm, and he’s got a nice breaking ball.”
Rick Ankiel walked by as Tracy described Eckstein’s velocity. “Oh, cheese,” Ankiel said.
Eckstein served as a part-time pitcher when he played in junior college. “They put me on the mound because I could throw strikes,” Eckstein said. “But I wasn’t overpowering.” Some days, depending on how his back is feeling, Eckstein has a better curveball than slider. The experience helped him develop the drill, which several Nationals bench players have taken to.
“It kind of gives you that feel of tightening yourself up a little bit,” Eckstein said. “At times I can throw a pretty good curveball.”
Eckstein does the drill with at least one hitter every day, throwing max effort and wearing out his arm. One day last week, Mark DeRosa asked him how he could keep rifling fastballs day after day. Eckstein told him the story about the junior college manager who pitched him in nine straight games over seven days.
“I had to learn that it doesn’t matter how your arm feels,” Eckstein said, laughing. “You just keep throwing.”