- The Washington Times - Monday, August 6, 2007

Austin Kearns ended the Washington Nationals’ 6-3 victory over St. Louis yesterday at RFK Stadium with a diving catch on Scott Rolen’s line drive to right.

It was the type of play manager Manny Acta has seen plenty of times in his first season with Washington.

“It’s unfair at times when we vote for the Gold Gloves because every year three center fielders win it, so if you play in the corner it doesn’t matter how good you are,” Acta said. “To me, he’s probably one of the best right fielders in the league.”

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Kearns‘ finishing flourish might not have been his best play of the day. The Cardinals tied it at 3-3 in the fifth when Jim Edmonds poked a double into the corner, but Kearns collected it and zipped a throw to second baseman Ronnie Belliard, who relayed it to catcher Jesus Flores to nab Juan Encarnacion at the plate.

“There were good plays all around today,” said Kearns, whose team has made only six errors in the last 15 games. “We’ve been playing well. It’s not like we’re throwing the ball all over the place or getting lucky. Especially against St. Louis, they’re not going to make mistakes, so you have to play a clean game.”

It’s also a way for Kearns to make a contribution each night. He has struggled offensively throughout the season, and his average has dipped to .250 during a 2-for-17 spell.

Days like yesterday have muted some of the criticism of a corner outfielder whose slugging percentage has dipped from .467 last year to .373 this season.

“As much as I was expecting his offense to be better than what it is — and so has Austin himself — he means so much to my club,” Acta said. “That’s why I complain very little about his offense.”

Lopez leaves early

Shortstop Felipe Lopez left at the start of the sixth inning with right knee patella tendinitis. The club listed him as day-to-day, and D’Angelo Jimenez took over at short.

Lopez has remained a fixture in Washington’s lineup, appearing in more games (105) than anyone besides third baseman Ryan Zimmerman and Kearns. He also has proved a durable middle infielder, playing in at least 148 games each of the last two years.

The 27-year-old struggled at times early in the season and was dropped from the leadoff spot for more than a month. Lopez, though, has hit .269 (18-for-67) since moving back to the top spot July 18.

Hill on schedule

Right-hander Shawn Hill is expected to make one more minor league rehabilitation start before returning to the majors next week.

Hill, out since May 11, allowed one run in four hitless innings on Saturday at Class A Potomac. He will start Thursday at Class AAA Columbus.

“He threw the ball very well and pain free,” Acta said. “The next step [is Columbus] and then over here to D.C.”

Acta said Hill, who was 3-3 with a 2.70 ERA when a combination of right elbow and left shoulder ailments shelved him, would be kept on regular rest. That would set up a return to the Nationals on Aug. 14, when the club opens a homestand against Philadelphia.

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