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Austin Kearns's two home runs lead Indians past Nationals

Washington Nationals' Adam Dunn walks back to the dugout after striking out against Cleveland Indians' Jake Westbrook in the sixth inning in a baseball game, Friday, June 11, 2010, in Cleveland. (AP Photo/Tony Dejak)
Washington Nationals' Adam Dunn walks back to the dugout after striking out against Cleveland Indians' Jake Westbrook in the sixth inning in a baseball game, Friday, June 11, 2010, in Cleveland. (AP Photo/Tony Dejak) (Tony Dejak - AP)

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By Adam Kilgore
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, June 12, 2010

CLEVELAND -- If not for his battered thumb and, maybe, his own pride, things could be different for Austin Kearns. He might exist in Washington not as a failed experiment and a cursed name, but as a steady producer and an admired teammate. "He'd still be here," said Adam Dunn, his former teammate with the Washington Nationals. "Because he's a really good player."

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But Kearns's thumb was battered, and his pride disallowed him from fixing it. And so Kearns tormented Nationals fans like few players over the past two dreadful seasons. He plays for the Cleveland Indians now, a different team in a different league, and still, finally healthy, he found a fresh way to enrage Nationals followers Friday night in a 7-2 Nationals loss. In 174 at-bats for the Nationals last year, Kearns hit three home runs. In four at-bats against them Friday night, Kearns hit two.

With former Nationals manager Manny Acta in the home dugout at Progressive Field, Kearns victimized his former team with a pair of home runs and four RBI before 22,041. Bought out by the Nationals following two dismal, injury-marred years, Kearns this offseason landed with the Indians. First he made the team. Then he thrived. Kearns saved his best game yet for his former team.

"I'm happy for him," Dunn said. "I wish he wouldn't have beat us tonight, but I'm still happy to see him doing well."

The Nationals snapped a three-game winning streak and dropped two games below .500, squandering the momentum from their first sweep this season. Another spasm of sloppy defense created a deficit they could not erase. Adam Kennedy's two-out error in the first inning immediately preceded Kearns's first home run, a 397-foot, three-run blast to left field off Luis Atilano.

Kennedy is "in a little funk there defensively," Manager Jim Riggleman said. "I think the lack of playing time is hurting him a little bit. I'm going to get him right back out there tomorrow."

Against Jake Westbrook, the Nationals' offense scored one run in the first and never seriously threatened to overtake the Indians. They scored another in the eighth and loaded the bases with two outs for Ryan Zimmerman. But Zimmerman, on the first pitch he saw from Chris Perez, grounded sharply into a 6-4-3 double play. The Nationals fell to 12-20 away from Nationals Park this year, the sixth-worst road record in the majors.

While the Nationals stumbled, Kearns continued his resurgence. Kearns ended Friday the Indians' best hitter, batting .307 with a .393 on-base percentage and a .508 slugging percentage. Anyone who watched him endure 2009, when he batted below .200, would not recognize him. His swing, Dunn said, is shorter and more destructive. The reason for the disparity is simple.

"He's healthy," Acta said. "He was not healthy over there at all."

In 2008, Kearns played with a stress fracture in his leg and bone chips in his elbow. Last year, he played with a severe thumb sprain that required offseason surgery. He rarely spoke publicly about the ailments. Kearns recognizes now that the thumb injury erased any chance at success, and he knows something he could not admit at the time: He should not have played.

"That's something probably everybody is guilty of at some point," Kearns said. "Sometimes, you don't realize until after it would have been best to go ahead and get healthy, get yourself well. It's the competitive nature of wanting to be out there."

Said Acta: "He's a very proud man. He felt the pressure of a big contract that was handed to him."


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