Kearns, Nats Caught in the Headlights

By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, April 7, 2007

There can be times over the course of a season when nearly every play -- an odd hop or a ball in the wind, a bad instinct or a poor read -- seeks out and finds one particular player. That man is stripped in front of an entire stadium, exposed to the fans and a television audience to boot, nowhere to turn, unable to hide.

Meet Austin Kearns last night. Check the box score, and he's a bit player in the Washington Nationals' hideous 7-1 loss to the Arizona Diamondbacks, the Nationals' fourth in five games to open the season. The eye-popping numbers there were provided by Diamondbacks right-hander Micah Owings, who made his major league debut with five innings of one-hit ball and was helped by a two-out, three-run homer from Arizona center fielder Chris Young off Jerome Williams in the top of the sixth.

The Nationals entered the ninth with only that one hit on the board, failed to get a hit in six at-bats with runners in scoring position -- making them 0 for 19 in the first two games of this series -- and committed their seventh error in five games.

"It was pretty bad offensively," Kearns said. "You got one hit going to the ninth, and no runs, that's unacceptable. We can't have that."

Kearns? Statistically, a quiet 0 for 3 with a walk and a strikeout. On a painfully chilly night in front of 19,234 bundled-up zealots at RFK Stadium, nothing that jumps off the page. Just don't tell Kearns that.

"Sometimes you have those days where it just seems like you're right in the middle of things," he said. "Sometimes they're good. Sometimes they're bad. Tonight, it wasn't a good one."

Standing in front of his locker, he immediately ticked off the list: "A play up against the wall. A dumb base-running play. A low liner that was in the lights that I tried to stay with."

Where to start? Entering the fourth inning, Williams was already in uncharted territory for Washington. No Nationals starter through the first turn in the rotation had pitched two scoreless innings to open a game, yet Williams set down the first 10 men he faced.

"He kept us in the game," third baseman Ryan Zimmerman said. "He threw strikes, got on the mound. He wasn't walking around. That's what we need."

But when Alberto Callaspo finally got the Diamondbacks' first hit, a bouncing ball into left field, Williams fell victim to his defense. Ronnie Belliard took the throw at second but failed to realize Callaspo was racing to the bag. Belliard didn't apply what would have been an easy tag out.

With two outs, that set up Kearns's first wild ride. Williams made what he said was one of only two mistakes on the night, grooving a fastball to Chad Tracy that the Arizona third baseman sent high to right. Kearns, who has a reputation as a smart defender, raced to the corner. Still on the run, he jumped, slammed into the wall, and the ball caromed away -- an RBI triple.

"I definitely thought it was a ball I should've caught," Kearns said.

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