Mets Send Nationals Tumbling Backward

The Mets' John Maine pitches during the second inning against the Nationals.
The Mets' John Maine pitches during the second inning against the Nationals. (Frank Franklin Ii - AP)
By Chico Harlan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, May 14, 2008

NEW YORK, May 13 -- Forward steps for the Washington Nationals, and especially for right fielder Austin Kearns, have been difficult this season. Tuesday night, they also turned out to be damaging.

Because of a Kearns misplay in right field, a game-altering moment where he charged a liner that zipped over his head, the Nationals lost to the New York Mets, 6-3, at Shea Stadium and relinquished their latest chance for a two-game winning streak -- modest for most teams, elusive for this one, given how the Nationals haven't won two in a row since May 3-4.

In the stretch since, what began for Kearns as a slow start has grown into a protracted slump. His 1-for-4 performance Tuesday included several low-lights -- among them, a sixth-inning strikeout call he argued with umpire Ted Barrett and an eighth-inning groundout with two aboard -- but still, his average rose from .200 to .201.

After the game, Kearns was among the last players to board the team bus. He slowly buttoned his dress shirt and talked about trying to stay optimistic. Perhaps Kearns's 22 months with Washington have dimmed management's hopes for his career, but at least until Tuesday, Manager Manny Acta could trust his right fielder for one thing: his defense. Kearns in right, Acta often said, doubled as peace of mind for everybody.

The key misplay in this game occurred in the sixth inning, with the score tied at 2. With one out against Washington starter John Lannan, New York's eighth and ninth batters -- Brian Schneider and newly promoted pinch hitter Fernando Tatis -- reached with singles. One out later, Ryan Church slashed a pitch to right field -- a hissing liner that curved and rose at the same time. Just after Kearns took several steps in, though, he realized those steps were mistakes. He attempted an awkward stab at the ball, and it sailed no more than a foot over his glove.

The ball rolled to the fence.

Schneider and Tatis rolled home.

Go-ahead run, insurance run. A 4-2 Mets lead.

"I don't know," Kearns said. "I thought I had a read on it. I don't know."

He paused, playing with the buttons on his shirt.

"It just tailed off. It carried. Maybe it hooked or cut or something."

For that play, at least, Kearns received forgiveness from all relevant parties. The official scorer ruled the play a double. ("I hit the . . . out of it," said Church, whose other hit was a third-inning home run. "I think it just got up on him in a hurry.") Teammate Ryan Zimmerman said Kearns just had some tough luck while attempting a difficult play. Lannan, who was sometimes effective but never efficient in his six innings, lamented the pitch itself, a slider left too high in the strike zone.

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