Kearns Trying To Rediscover Stroke at No. 7

By Chico Harlan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, August 20, 2008

PHILADELPHIA, Aug. 19 -- For much of this season, Austin Kearns has been a cleanup hitter in title only. Now that he's lost his role in the middle of the Washington Nationals' lineup, he is worried less about regaining the No. 4 hitter's job and more about rediscovering a No. 4 hitter's power.

For Tuesday's game against Philadelphia, Manager Manny Acta dropped Kearns to seventh. "I'm just trying to post the best lineup possible," Acta said. "He's in a little bit of a funk right now, and I just want to get him back in some kind of rhythm."

Kearns, who has started 35 games in the cleanup spot and 25 in the No. 5 hole this year, entered Tuesday's game averaging a home run every 49.2 at-bats; before this year, he averaged a home run every 25.2 at-bats. When Kearns returned from elbow surgery at the beginning of July, team management talked about the right fielder's improved bat speed and predicted a spike in Kearns's power numbers.

But in 145 at-bats since coming off the disabled list, he has three home runs and 14 RBI.

Said Kearns, "I'm trying to get in a rhythm right now."

Especially in the last two weeks, Kearns has hit too many ground balls -- a sign, Acta said, that he's "a little late getting in a hitting position and the ball is beating him a little bit."

Estrada Gets a Look in Relief

The Nationals called up Marco Estrada from Class AAA Columbus on Tuesday, repeating the experiment that they have begun with Garrett Mock: They're trying to turn a minor league starter into a major league reliever.

With Sunday's trade of Luis Ayala to the New York Mets, Washington had a bullpen spot to fill. The team's minor league talent evaluators suggested Estrada, who was 9-6 in 25 starts split between Columbus and Class AA Harrisburg.

News of his promotion surprised Estrada, who's never pitched as a reliever. His major league debut, he figured, would only come if they "got rid of a starter."

"But I'm glad," he said. "I just wasn't expecting it, I guess."

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