- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 18, 2008

BALTIMORE — This was the opportunity Austin Kearns had been seeking, a chance to snap out of the offensive funk that has defined his miserable season and contribute a meaningful hit to the Washington Nationals in a game-changing situation.

Eighth inning. Bases loaded. Two outs. Nationals trailing the Baltimore Orioles by a run. Full count.

“I felt pretty good,” he said later. “That situation, I felt like I was going to get it done.”

Kearns’ shining moment will have to wait at least another day.

Washington’s struggling right fielder struck out, swinging at a wicked sinker from Baltimore reliever Jim Johnson and stranding the tying and potential go-ahead runs on base, the key moment in the Orioles’ 6-5 victory at Camden Yards and another moment of frustration for Kearns in a season loaded with them.

The raw stats — a .187 average, six extra-base hits in 42 games — are bad enough, but they don’t take into account the situations Kearns has failed in repeatedly all season. The runners he has stranded on base. The poor swings he has taken. The mounting frustration and dejection that comes from the worst slump of his professional career.

“I obviously expect a lot out of myself,” he said. “I don’t think you ever expect to go through something like this. It’s definitely something that’s going to make you better in the long run.”

Whether Kearns, who turns 28 on Tuesday, emerges from this horrid stretch or not, he continues to have a clubhouse full of supporters, beginning with his manager.

“I pull hard for him, everybody knows, because he’s such a hard-nosed player and a professional,” Manny Acta said. “Obviously I want him to do well. It’s a long season. He’s a pro, and he’ll continue to grind it out and things will change for him.”

Kearns’ strikeout wouldn’t have merited much conversation had the game continued on the path it was heading most of the night. The Orioles were in control nearly from the beginning, taking a 6-2 lead on home runs by Nick Markakis and Jay Payton, the two big blows against Odalis Perez on an off-night for the Washington left-hander.

A model of consistency through his first eight starts, Perez (1-4) has struggled in his last two outings. After allowing 11 hits last week in New York (despite earning his first win), he was roughed up last night for six runs on 10 hits and two walks.

“I was bad,” he said. “I couldn’t keep the game on the line. It was one of those games where you believe before the game warming up that it will be one of the best games. But by the time the game starts, everything is different. It’s like they knew what was coming.”

Perez’s battery mate, Jesus Flores, didn’t particularly enjoy his night, either, certainly not when he was ejected by plate umpire Tim McClelland after questioning a borderline ball four call to Markakis in the sixth inning.

Flores insisted he did nothing other than ask McClelland where the pitch was.

“I don’t really say anything to him,” he said. “And that’s why I was mad about it after he threw me out of the game. That was the only question I made to him.”

Despite all that, the Nationals rallied in dramatic fashion in the eighth, finally coming to life after a listless offensive performance.

Washington got a big, two-run single from Aaron Boone to bring Johnson out of the bullpen. The reliever immediately made things worse when he walked Wil Nieves to load the bases and then hit Lastings Milledge in back of the left shoulder on an 0-2 fastball to force in a run, making it 6-5.

Kearns walked to the plate, knowing opportunity was staring him in the face. He got ahead in the count 3-1, putting Johnson in a position where he had to throw a strike or else force in the tying run. But he fouled off one fastball, then swung at the 3-2 pitch, slamming his bat into the ground after missing it.

Clearly frustrated by another failed at-bat, Kearns could only sigh and try to maintain a positive outlook as he explained what he needs to do to start hitting well.

“Just got to come here and do the same stuff you always do,” he said. “That’s the only way I know how to do it. Come in here and get your work in. No matter if you’re hitting .400 or .100 or whatever, just do the same thing and keep a good attitude and play hard.”


 BALTIMORE — Horse racing is obviously big in these parts, and with the Preakness run only a few miles from here yesterday, the Orioles made sure to show the race on the Jumbotron.

 Those fans who were already in the park about 45 minutes before game time (plus some Nationals who were on the field taking batting practice) watched with anticipation as Big Brown made his move from the pack. By the time the horse had taken the lead down the stretch, everyone in the stadium stood and applauded.

 Conspicuously absent was Nationals catcher and thoroughbred owner Paul Lo Duca, who is on the disabled list with a broken hand. Hmm, might Lo Duca have found his way to Pimlico to watch the race in person?

Mark Zuckerman


.235 Nationals’ team batting average entering last night’s game, worst in the National League.


Nationals LHP John Lannan Record, ERA: 3-4, 3.74

Orioles RHP Jeremy Guthrie

Record, ERA: 2-3, 4.18

Time: 1:35 p.m. TV: MASN HD

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