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.
When Zimmerman followed with his second error of the season, Arizona led 2-0. Kearns kept it there in the fifth, gunning down Arizona catcher Miguel Montero at the plate.
"It didn't help us score any," he said.
Other than Ryan Church's way-too-little, way-too-late solo homer in the bottom of the ninth, nothing helped in that regard. The Nationals' best chance came in the fifth, still down by two. With the bases loaded on two walks and a hit batter, Owings faced Zimmerman for the first time since the pitcher was at Georgia Tech and the hitter at the University of Virginia.
"He's gotten a lot better," Zimmerman said.
Zimmerman was looking for an off-speed pitch, and Owings started him instead with an 89-mph fastball, taken for a strike. The next fastball came in at 93, and Zimmerman fouled it back. And, in an 0-2 hole in a key spot in a game, Zimmerman couldn't lay off Owings's next offering -- an 88-mph, chest-high fastball that he simply swung through.
"It was a bad pitch for me to swing at," Zimmerman said.
That chance gone by, Young hit his three-run bomb off Williams in the sixth. "Fastball down the middle, and he teed off on it," Williams said. "That's my fault."
So Kearns tried to create something in the sixth. Down 5-0, Kearns was on third after a walk, a wild pitch and a groundout. Brian Schneider hit a grounder to Tracy. Kearns danced off the base.
"I thought I could sneak a run in there . . . and ended up looking like an idiot out there," he said. He got caught up in a rundown, an easy mark.
"Maybe some guys [are] trying to do too much, like with his base running," Manager Manny Acta said. "We're down by five runs."
What could be left? In the eighth, a low liner off the bat of Conor Jackson sunk as Kearns charged, glancing off his body for an RBI single. He did all he could, picking his grass-stained body up off the ground, turning and walking back to his spot in right, the glare of the lights shining down on him the entire way.