By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, September 26, 2006
NEW YORK, Sept. 25 -- When his Washington Nationals teammates were running into outs on the base paths, Austin Kearns watched from the dugout. When Ryan Zimmerman laced a three-run double and rookie right-hander Beltran Perez worked his way out of trouble in beating the New York Mets, 7-3, on Monday night, Kearns could only fidget, pacing from the dugout to the clubhouse and back again. His side was still sore, his mind still fragile.
Nationals first baseman Nick Johnson remained in a Queens hospital Monday, still trying to get over the pain following surgery to repair the broken femur in his right leg. Kearns, with whom Johnson collided violently during a loss to the Mets on Saturday, is trying to overcome his badly bruised left side, a tangible reminder of the accident for everyone in the clubhouse.
But in the two days since Johnson's season ended, Kearns has had to deal with more than bumps and bruises. One lingering feeling stays with him: If he had pulled up while chasing David Wright's popup on Saturday, Johnson would still be playing.
"It's been tough," Kearns said before Monday's game. "I know Nick's had injuries, and I can relate to him with that, because I've had my share, too. And to see the kind of year he was having, I still --" and he paused for a moment. "I don't even really like talking about it right now."
In the aftermath of the collision, Manager Frank Robinson and Kearns were among those on the field as Johnson was motionless, groaning in pain. Robinson was so distraught that he returned to the dugout without checking on Kearns's mental state. A quick glance out to right told the manager what he needed to know.
"He was pretty broken up," Robinson said.
So he took Kearns out immediately, then gave him Sunday and Monday off, both to rest his sore body and to heal mentally. Neither has gone particularly well. Kearns has been heavily wrapped, icing his side, each day since the collision. He said after Monday's game that he was "going crazy" watching.
"I just spend time looking for someone to talk to," he said.
The most difficult conversation, though, came on Saturday night in Johnson's hospital room, before the surgery.
"I didn't know what to say," Kearns said. "I probably told him 'I'm sorry' about five or six times. But he was just trying to just talk and joke around. It was tough."
Kearns said he doesn't feel guilty about the play, calling it "just a freak thing" that came about from "guys playing hard." But teammates who have spent time with him know it wears on him.
"It's hard for him to sit here and say he's hurt and he's sore, because you got a guy in the hospital with a broken leg," said catcher Brian Schneider, who had a season-high four hits on Monday. "The last thing he wants to do is complain because, obviously, Nick has it a lot worse. . . . He needs to realize, and he does now, that it was not his fault at all."
Kearns's burden is lessened because Johnson is expected to be at full strength for spring training. Johnson didn't travel back to Washington with the team Monday night, but he received visits from roughly 15 Nationals players and Robinson on Sunday evening, and owner Mark Lerner stopped by Monday.
Head athletic trainer Tim Abraham said the team hoped to move Johnson to Washington within a couple of days. "It just depends on how quickly he can get up and comfortably moving around," Abraham said.
Jose Vidro, the team's regular second baseman, took Johnson's spot at first on Monday, and he went 3 for 3 with two doubles as the Nationals knocked around Mets left-hander Tom Glavine, scoring four runs in his six innings -- three on Zimmerman's double in the third that gave the rookie 104 RBI.
But the Nationals could have had far more. They had two runners thrown out stealing, Schneider and Zimmerman, both on failed hit-and-run plays. Vidro was cut down trying to score from third on a grounder to Mets shortstop Jose Reyes.
"Just being a little aggressive," was Robinson's explanation.
Still, Perez -- who dazzled in his first major league start last week, allowing a single hit over six innings against the Atlanta Braves -- was good enough to make the runs hold up, albeit barely. He didn't walk a batter in that first start. On Monday, he walked six in 6 1/3 innings. He was unable to spot his fastball, yet gave up only two runs.
"I like what I see with this young man," Robinson said. "He doesn't get frustrated."
When the Nationals scored three in the top of the eighth -- two on a single from second baseman Bernie Castro -- they ensured beating the Mets three times in the four games here.
And when it ended, Kearns emerged from the dugout to congratulate his teammates. He is buoyed by the fact that Johnson continues to send text messages to him, a sign his spirits are good. But even in victory Monday, Kearns walked slowly off the field, the second-to-last National to reach the dugout, the forgotten man in his team's most jarring moment of the year.