Nats Left Wishing on a Star

Washington's Austin Kearns, acquired from Cincinnati during the all-star break, makes the final out against Florida. Kearns is 3 for 19 since the trade.
Washington's Austin Kearns, acquired from Cincinnati during the all-star break, makes the final out against Florida. Kearns is 3 for 19 since the trade. (By Lynne Sladky -- Associated Press)
By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, July 20, 2006

MIAMI, July 19 -- For a moment, there was some hope, albeit in the most marginal of forms. Florida Marlins center fielder Alfredo Amezaga drifted back, and Austin Kearns must have wanted to will the ball over the Dolphin Stadium fence. This guy needs something positive to happen, because he walks around the clubhouse wide-eyed, still trying to decide with whom to eat a meal, still stunned by the trade that stripped him of his status as a Cincinnati Red and made him a Washington National.

But the most Kearns could manage in the ninth inning Wednesday afternoon was a long fly ball that didn't win a game for the Nationals. Rather, it ended it, a 1-0 loss that featured all of two hits -- singles from Kearns and Alex Escobar -- against Florida rookie Anibal Sanchez and two relievers.

The result ended a six-game road trip that opened the second half of the season with series losses in Pittsburgh and Florida. Kearns was along for the ride through all of it, though the marquee name in the center of the eight-player deal between the Reds and the Nationals appeared to be with his new teammates more in body than in spirit. Wednesday, he managed a hit and two walks, but he finished the trip 3 for 19. He has yet to drive in a run as a National. Clearly, the shock is still with him.

"I don't feel like I've been here for a few years or anything like that," Kearns said afterward. "But each day, you get a little more settled in."

He said it as if trying to convince himself. Kearns has not even seen his new "home" clubhouse at RFK Stadium, still doesn't know where he'll live. He left behind not only a franchise that drafted him seventh overall in 1998, but his childhood home in nearby Lexington, Ky.

"That's one of the biggest things," Kearns said earlier this week. "That's going to take some getting used to."

There is a lot to get used to around the Nationals these days. The team will play at home for the first time since the all-star break on Friday against the Chicago Cubs, the first game of what the new ownership group of Theodore N. Lerner has labeled a "Grand Reopening" of RFK. Players will greet fans on their way into the ballpark throughout the weekend, and there will be new flowers, new food -- and, perhaps, a new focus away from the field.

But the players and coaches still must deal with results such as that on Wednesday, when the 22-year-old Sanchez -- who came to the Marlins from Boston as part of the trade for pitcher Josh Beckett in the offseason -- stymied Washington for seven innings, allowing one hit in his fifth major league appearance.

"It's frustrating," said catcher Brian Schneider, who watched his starter, Ramon Ortiz, toss seven solid innings only to lose for the ninth time this season.

For Manager Frank Robinson, "frustrating" didn't even begin to describe the situation. The Nationals -- by virtue of the six walks issued by Marlins pitchers -- had plenty of chances. In the third, Kearns singled, advanced on a groundout, reached third on a grounder from Ortiz -- on which the pitcher might have been safe had he stepped on the bag -- but failed to score when Alfonso Soriano flied to left.

In the fifth, the first two Nationals walked, but Schneider hit into a rally-killing double play. In the eighth, Kearns led off with a walk, reached second on a sacrifice and remained there when pinch hitter Luis Matos flied softly to center, Soriano was intentionally walked, and new shortstop Felipe Lopez -- now 2 for 25 since arriving with Kearns from the Reds -- struck out.

And in the ninth, Nick Johnson drew a one-out walk and Escobar followed with a soft single to right-center to put runners on first and third. But again, nothing.

"Can't get a man . . . " Robinson started to say, before stopping himself. "How many times have we said that? Can not get a man in from third base. It's unacceptable." By now, he was muttering to himself. "Major league hitters. Can't get people in from third base."

The first culprit in the ninth was Marlon Anderson, who faced Marlins closer Joe Borowski needing a fly ball to tie the game. Anderson struck out on three pitches.

"We get jammed," Robinson said. "We hit lazy little fly balls. We strike out swinging at pitches that we should not swing at. . . . We just don't do what you have to do or what the situation calls for."

So that brought up Kearns, the chance to be a hero, the chance to get more comfortable in his new environs. And what he could manage was the deep fly ball. "I was just a little off," he said.

And that is how he has seemed since he arrived -- a little off. His good friend, Cincinnati slugger Adam Dunn, told the Dayton Daily News that he talks to Kearns daily, and "he tells me every day how miserable he is in Washington." Kearns has publicly denied that this week. But there's no denying that things are different now. The Reds lead the National League wild-card race. The Nationals are in last place in the NL East.

"For me, personally, if I look at it like that, I'm not going to play good at all," Kearns said. "I just come here and focus and just try to win. If you get caught up in [the fact that] you went from a team that's in the race to a team that's in last, that's just going to make things get worse before they ever get better."

© 2006 The Washington Post Company