By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, July 23, 2007
When Austin Kearns strode to the plate in the eighth inning yesterday, his last home run was a fading memory. It came May 21 in Cincinnati, his old home park. Even on that night, the ball just snuck into the front row, surely an out at spacious RFK Stadium, where Kearns makes his living now.
So there was some mixture of surprise and joy, relief and triumph that resulted when Kearns drove an offering from Colorado reliever Jorge Julio deep to left field, when a scoreless game turned into a 3-0 victory for the Washington Nationals. A homer? In a key situation? From Austin Kearns?
"I don't think I've ever really been through something like this," Kearns said later, replaying his season with so many opportunities gone by.
Kearns's three-run homer came 187 at-bats after that shot in Cincinnati, a drought that must have seemed twice that long to Kearns. Yesterday, it helped the Nationals take three of four games against the Rockies, completing a 5-2 homestand. Right-hander Tim Redding, an afterthought in the minors a month ago, threw 6 2/3 innings without allowing a run, and the Nationals had their first back-to-back shutouts since the team relocated to Washington in 2005.
"The pitching carried us this whole homestand," Kearns said.
So finally, Kearns helped back them up. When he was acquired as part of an eight-player deal during the all-star break in 2006, the Nationals envisioned him as a key part of a future in which they don't plan to occupy last place. But his evaluation of his own season is simple.
"Not good," he said yesterday. He is hitting .249, slugging .368. Even with his sixth homer yesterday, he has driven in 39 runs, on pace for 64. Not, as Kearns said, what he expected.
"He expects to do better," said injured first baseman Nick Johnson, who is close with Kearns. "He's a hard worker, and he cares about it. He's just got to keep grinding."
In his years with the Reds, Kearns was still developing as a hitter. But he homered once every 22.4 at-bats. In a little more than a year in Washington, he has all of 14 homers -- one every 40.4 at-bats.
Kearns is not one to show that it eats at him. "He's professional about it," catcher Brian Schneider said. That, teammates say, is why they respect how he's handled his season.
"It's easy to try too hard," Kearns said. "It's something I'm probably guilty of a lot. I'm my own worst critic, or whatever you want to call it. I expect to do well, and when I don't, I don't like it."
When Kearns came to the plate in the eighth, he was already 0 for 3, though he had plenty of company on both teams. Redding and Colorado right-hander Josh Fogg -- an unlikely pair to follow zeroes with more zeroes -- combined to allow eight hits in 12 2/3 innings. The Nationals' lineup full of reserves -- which featured no one hitting better than .258 -- failed to execute in almost every key situation.
In the third, they had runners on first and third with one out, and D'Angelo Jimenez grounded into a double play. In the fourth, they had runners on first and second with one out, and Robert Fick popped a lazy foul to third before Jesus Flores followed a walk with a bases-loaded groundout.
And in the seventh, with pinch runner Nook Logan on first, Ryan Langerhans failed to get down a bunt. Worse, with two strikes, he tried to do it again. Logan was running. Langerhans popped the ball up -- directly into a double play.
"I should've swung away," Langerhans said. "I should've been smarter about it."
So in the dugout, there were concerns.
"We couldn't get a bunt down," Manager Manny Acta said. "We couldn't get a guy over. We couldn't drive them in from third with less than two outs. Just name any type of execution. We had our chances."
The final chance came in the eighth, after Chris Booker had relieved Redding and recorded a key strikeout with two men on in the seventh, after Jon Rauch had pitched a scoreless eighth. Jimenez started the winning rally with a bouncing, two-out single to right. When Jimenez advanced on a passed ball, Rockies Manager Clint Hurdle elected to walk Ryan Zimmerman to get to Kearns.
Julio, the well-traveled reliever who had blown save opportunities in his first two career appearances against Washington, missed with his first pitch. He came back with a slider, and Kearns drilled it into the mezzanine level in left.
"That, today, makes me a lot happier because of the fact that it didn't scrape the wall," Acta said. "It was an upper-deck shot. It tells me the power's still there, that if he continues working on the hands and the timing, he's going to hit more."
Kearns, though, said it didn't matter. Upper deck, off the foul pole, whatever. He needed one.
"It could've hit a glove and bounced over," he said. "I don't care."
Afterward, he packed his bags and headed north. He and several teammates planned to attend a Toby Keith concert last night outside Philadelphia, where the Nationals open a road trip Tuesday. Yesterday morning, Kearns had driven to the park cranking one of his favorite country singers. He had the Nationals' staff play "Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue" before his at-bats.
But as the Nationals filtered out of the clubhouse, another Keith standard, "How Do You Like Me Now?", blared through RFK's speakers. The chorus:
How do you like me now
Now that I'm on my way?
Austin Kearns might have blasted that song all the way up Interstate 95, desperate to use one homer to send him on his way.