Kearns Misses His Opportunity

Nationals outfielder Austin Kearns tosses his bat after striking out with the bases loaded in a one-run game.
Nationals outfielder Austin Kearns tosses his bat after striking out with the bases loaded in a one-run game. (By Luis M. Alvarez -- Associated Press)
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By Paul Tenorio
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, May 18, 2008

BALTIMORE, May 17 -- On Friday night, while his teammates started a three-game series with area rival Baltimore Orioles, Washington Nationals outfielder Austin Kearns was given a day off to tinker with his mechanics in an attempt to end his season-long slump.

Kearns, who was hitting .192 entering Saturday night's contest with the Baltimore Orioles and was mired in an eight-game, 2-for-29 slump, was the poster boy for a Nationals lineup that has plenty of potential, but little production. So it was fitting that Kearns, who was back in the starting lineup Saturday night, would step to the plate with his team finally attempting to pull off a late comeback.

Down four runs entering the eighth, the Nationals had rallied to within one behind a combination of hits, walks, two fielder's choices and a hit by pitch. And with the bases loaded and an opportunity to break out of a slump in a high-pressure situation, Kearns stepped up to face Orioles reliever Jim Johnson.

The 27-year-old battled to a full count, but with the Camden Yards crowd on its feet, Kearns went down swinging, ending the Nationals' rally in the eventual 6-5 loss, and the outfielder slammed his bat down in frustration.

For Kearns, who went 0 for 4 in the game, that he had worked the count full and produced a quality at-bat didn't matter.

"No, I don't take a positive away from that," he said. "That situation I felt like I was going to get it done, and it just didn't happen."

Instead Kearns expressed frustration at his continued struggles and said he had never gone through a slump like this before.

"No, no, this is new for me," Kearns said. "I obviously expect a lot of myself, so I don't think you expect to go through something like this, but I think it's definitely something that's going to make you better in the long run."

Both Nationals Manager Manny Acta and teammate Aaron Boone, however, said Kearns's ability to have such a strong at-bat in such a critical situation is encouraging.

"That's kind of what I've told him," Boone said. "When I've struggled in the past, I wouldn't have had that kind of at-bat."

And Acta, who before the game had talked about the potential his young hitters have and the team's continued efforts to snap those players out of this dry spell, said afterward he believed Kearns would be able to fight through this time.

"I pull hard for him, everybody knows, because he's such a hard-nosed player and a professional and obviously I want him to do well," Acta said. "Everybody here wants him to do well. But it's a long season. He's a pro, and he'll continue to grind it out and things will change for him."

For Kearns, who finished so strong last season and expected to be back this year with the same type of production, the grind continues. And last night's at-bat is just another moment he must overcome.

"Obviously it's been struggles for a while so it's not like this is the first game or something that didn't go my way," Kearns said. "But you know, you just try to forget about it and come out and look to change it tomorrow."

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