Second Half Begins With Quiet Debuts

Pittsburgh's Jose Bautista receives congratulations upon his return to the dugout after his fourth-inning home run. Bautista went 2 for 4.
Pittsburgh's Jose Bautista receives congratulations upon his return to the dugout after his fourth-inning home run. Bautista went 2 for 4. (By Gene J. Puskar -- Associated Press)
By Adam Kilgore
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, July 15, 2006

PITTSBURGH, July 14 -- The acquisition of Austin Kearns and Felipe Lopez was touted, by all parties involved, as a move for the long-term success of the Washington Nationals, certainly not a quick solution for this season's woes.

That comes as a helpful refrain, because in the shortest term of all -- one game -- Kearns and Lopez certainly didn't bolster the Nationals. Against the Pittsburgh Pirates on Friday, Lopez went 0 for 4 with a strikeout and an error. Kearns went 0 for 3 and made the night's biggest out, grounding to third with the bases loaded and two outs in the eighth. Combined, that's 0 for 7, an error and a game-deciding groundout -- anything but a grand beginning.

So the newcomers did their part in the Nationals' fourth straight loss. Ramon Ortiz allowed five runs in five innings, Jon Rauch gave up two runs in the eighth and the Pirates pounded 15 hits in a 7-4 decision that dropped the Nationals 15 games below .500, tying a season worst.

Meanwhile, in Cincinnati, the Reds were in the process of beating the Colorado Rockies, 3-1, to leapfrog the Los Angeles Dodgers for first place in the National League wild-card standings.

"It's definitely different," Kearns said before Friday's game. "But you can't worry about that, man. I was on a winning team and now I'm on a team that's down in the standings. That's just going to wear on you. So I'm not looking at it like that. Things happen for a reason. I'm sure it will work out."

Not Friday night, it didn't. Roberto Hernandez had issued back-to-back walks to Lopez and Jose Vidro in the eighth inning, bringing Pirates Manager Jim Tracy to the mound, Matt Capps out of the Pirates' bullpen and Kearns to the plate.

At least it felt like a pennant race, a moment pregnant with suspense, no matter that the teams involved were a combined 35 1/2 games out of first place entering the game.

"I couldn't care less if there were two people in the stands," Kearns said, "or 40,000."

A day earlier, Kearns had been immersed in this feeling, soaking in a whirlpool in Cincinnati when he was told he'd been traded to Washington.

Now, hours removed from a flight to Pittsburgh, he'd been reintroduced to meaningful baseball. Bases loaded, two outs, down by a run. Team record, irrelevant.

Capps delivered, and Kearns yanked his first pitch right at third baseman Joe Randa. He made the routine play, and the only solace Kearns had was that the game he cost his team in the standings wouldn't sting.

Kearns, of course, wasn't the only new National to make a dubious debut. To go with his 0-for-4 night at the plate, Lopez made a costly error in the second inning. With Jose Bautista on first, Ronny Paulino drilled a laser directly at Lopez. He squatted as the ball screamed at his glove, then peeked at first base for a second to gauge his chances at a possible double play. When he did, the ball glanced off his glove and into left field. Later, Bautista scored on a one-out sacrifice fly.

Kearns took his turn making a questionable defensive play in the fifth. A natural right fielder who hasn't played center this season, Kearns twisted and turned as he chased a long fly ball off the bat of Jason Bay to the wall. The ball bounced off the base of the wall a few feet to left, allowing Bay to trot into second for an RBI double.

"He's not a center fielder," Nationals Manager Frank Robinson said. "A lot of people got turned out there today."

The Nationals' outfield now consists of Kearns, the still-learning Alfonso Soriano and the injury-plagued Jose Guillen. Perhaps luckily for the Nationals' pitching staff, it's distinctly possible that Soriano, Guillen or even both won't be a part of the Nationals for much longer.

That underscores what the Nationals have preached all season: The Nationals are in it for the long term. The results of Friday's game and, unfortunately for the paying customers at RFK Stadium, the results of all the games to follow this season don't mean a whole lot.

"We're always trying to get better until we get to where we want to get to," Nationals General Manager Jim Bowden said Friday, a variation of what he and several team officials have been saying, ad nauseam, for weeks. "We're a few years away from that, but we're working hard at that."

When those years pass, if Bowden's plan materializes and Lopez and Kearns are leading a pennant charge in Southeast, their struggles Friday night, in their first games of what promises a long rebuilding process, will be a long-forgotten memory.

Said Lopez, "You can't jump to conclusions after the first game."

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