Nats Keep Moving In Right Direction

By Adam Kilgore
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 2, 2008

Austin Kearns approached the batter's box last night, the opportunity of the present outweighing the agony of his recent past. Yes, Kearns had only three hits in his past 32 at-bats, and, yes, his batting average could barely buy a cup of coffee.

But all of that could be pushed aside in the bottom of the eighth inning -- tie score, a runner on second base, an opportunity to become the latest Washington National to play hero. And so Kearns poked John Grabow's first pitch into right field -- the opposite field for Kearns -- bringing home Cristian Guzmán with the winning run in the Nationals' 3-2 victory over the Pittsburgh Pirates, giving them two more wins in their previous nine games (seven) than in their first 20 (five) before an announced crowd of 24,723.

"He knew we didn't need a three-run home run to win the ballgame," Manager Manny Acta said, an important distinction to make. The Nationals have crawled out of their slump by doing just enough to prevail, from the top of the roster to the bottom.

"Trying to get him in," Kearns said. "Simple as that."

If only it was that easy for Kearns this season. He entered yesterday hitting .182, his low point for the season. But he had shown signs of leaving his slump behind lately. He hit several line drives straight at fielders throughout recent games. On Wednesday, he started the game-winning rally by battling from an 0-2 count to draw a walk.

But Kearns busted out at the perfect time, allowing the Nationals -- who cobbled their runs using only singles -- not to squander another well-pitched game. Opening Day starter Odalis Pérez went seven innings, his longest start of the year. Luis Ayala, the winning pitcher, and Jon Rauch, the closer for at least the next four weeks with Chad Cordero sidelined, closed the game without incident, slamming the door with back-to-back 1-2-3 innings.

"We're going to go out and play good baseball," Rauch said. "And win a lot of games and surprise a lot of people."

Pérez provided the Nationals -- one of the few teams this offseason willing to pin their fortunes to a 30-year-old carrying a 5.57 ERA -- more than they could have hoped for during the first month of the season. He took the ball on Opening Night, produced an ERA well south of four and injected stability into a young staff.

"He's given us a chance to win every five days," Acta said. "He's given us what we envisioned."

But he had collected little to show for it, only an 0-3 record. Pérez -- again -- authored a start worthy of the win column last night, allowing two runs on three hits in seven innings.

"I'm confident," Pérez said. "The opportunity I get here from Manny, from the general manager, it's great. If I pitch good and we win and I don't get the win, I'm happy."

Pérez peppered the strike zone, throwing 61 of his 89 pitches for strikes and walking no one. Pérez cruised through the first 10 batters, striking out two Pirates and provoking weak grounders and lazy fly balls from the rest. No hitter so much as approached reaching base.

Of those 89 pitches, Pérez could regret only two of them. Freddy Sanchez came to the plate in the fourth with one out, the Pirates yet to produce their first base runner. Pérez started him with a strike, then tried to sneak a pitch by Sanchez on the inside corner. He turned it into his first home run this season, clobbering it over the left field fence and into the Pirates' bullpen.

But Pérez still maintained a chance at his first victory, the Nationals having given him a 2-0 lead with three singles -- Lastings Milledge, Kearns and a two-RBI poke through the right side from Wil Nieves -- in the second inning.

But it would take another four innings for the Nationals to belt their next hit, so Pérez clung to only a one-run cushion when Pittsburgh cleanup hitter Ryan Doumit strode to the plate in the seventh inning. Doumit golfed a 1-1 breaking ball into the left-center field seats, tying the score.

The homer, though, only set up Kearns's heroics. Guzmán started the rally by slapping a pitch down the first base line for a single. Nick Johnson pushed him to second when a pitched knocked him over and brushed his upper arm. When Milledge struck out, he brought Kearns to the fore for the game's most important at bat.

"It's easy to try to do too much right there," Kearns said. "And I've been one to do that."

So he thought back to the pregame meeting -- he knew Grabow liked to start hitters with an outside change-up, try to overexcite them into yanking the ball weakly to the left side. Kearns tried the opposite approach. When Grabow hurled a change-up on the outside corner, Kearns swung easily and lined it to right.

Guzman chugged around third base without hesitation, third base coach Tim Tolman windmilling him home even as Xavier Nady, having charged Kearns's hit, cocked his arm. His throw skipped into Doumit's glove as Guzmán barreled past, sliding to the right of home plate as Doumit swiped at him.

He tapped home plate, extending the Nationals' win streak to four.

"Just winning," Kearns said. "We're ready to win. We don't want to be here to play .500 baseball."

© 2008 The Washington Post Company