- The Washington Times - Monday, July 23, 2007

Austin Kearns is the first to admit he’s having an awful season.

“Not good,” the Washington Nationals right fielder said. “It’s definitely been … I don’t know the word I’m looking for here. It hasn’t been what I expected.”

No one with the Nationals expected this from the 27-year-old, not after a productive 2006 that earned him a three-year, $17.5 million contract extension over the winter.

When Kearns stepped to the plate in the eighth inning of yesterday’s game at RFK Stadium, his batting average stood at .247. He was on pace to drive in 60 runs. He hadn’t homered in more than two months.

By the time he rounded the bases after clubbing the three-run homer that gave Washington a 3-0 victory over the Colorado Rockies, Kearns at last was able to crack a smile. One towering shot into the left-field mezzanine certainly won’t turn his entire season around, but perhaps this was a start.

“I’m not going to sit here at my locker and feel sorry for myself and complain or anything like that,” Kearns said. “You go out and play, and if you don’t get it done, you don’t get it done. Keep on keeping on, that’s what I always say.”

That generic (and slightly country) saying seems to describe Kearns perfectly. He’s a simple man from Lexington, Ky., who doesn’t try to overanalyze things or make a big deal out of his successes or failures.

Because of that demeanor, it might appear like Kearns doesn’t care about his struggles this season. Those who know him best know that’s not the case.

“He’s mentally strong,” manager Manny Acta said. “But I know that deep inside he wants to do a lot better than he has done.”

Yesterday, Kearns‘ natural talents finally were on display for an RFK crowd of 21,793.

A tense pitchers’ duel between Washington’s Tim Redding and Colorado’s Josh Fogg — dueling zeroes for seven innings — came to a head in the eighth.

Despite an early gaffe — Ryan Langerhans’ popped-up bunt that resulted in Nook Logan getting doubled off first base — the Nationals hung in against Rockies reliever Jorge Julio and produced a two-out rally. D’Angelo Jimenez singled to right and took second on a passed ball, forcing Colorado to walk Ryan Zimmerman intentionally and leave the game in Kearns‘ hands.

Surely, the Rockies knew Kearns hadn’t homered since May 21 in Cincinnati, a span of 52 games and 186 at-bats. But they didn’t count on him ending that dubious stretch with one titanic blow.

With the count 1-0, Julio threw a slider. Kearns turned on it, then watched as it sailed over the left-field fence and into the mezzanine for a three-run homer. The crowd cheered, the Nationals dugout celebrated the big hit and Kearns was relieved as he rounded the bases.

“It’s easy to try too hard,” he said. “It’s something I’m probably guilty of a lot. I’m my own worst critic. I expect to do well, and when I don’t, I don’t like it.”

Kearns‘ blast accounted for the afternoon’s entire offense. Washington’s suddenly resurgent pitching staff turned in its second straight shutout of the Rockies, who came to town Thursday with one of the top offenses in the National League but limped away last night following three losses in four games.

Colorado gave itself plenty of chances to score yesterday but couldn’t come through with a clutch hit. The Rockies went 0-for-10 with runners in scoring position, extending their streak of misery to 0-for-31 — longest in the majors this season.

Perhaps their best chance came in the seventh, when they got a leadoff double from Garrett Atkins, who then took third on a passed ball. But Redding got Brad Hawpe to pop out, then got Troy Tulowitzki to hit a sharp grounder to the left side of the infield. Shortstop Felipe Lopez ranged over to field the ball backhanded, looked Atkins back to third and then fired a bullet to first to record the second out of the inning.

“Very nice play,” Acta said. “That’s one thing that a lot of people maybe didn’t notice before, when he was [playing] second base. He’s got one of the strongest arms I’ve ever seen.”

Redding walked Yorvit Torrealba to prolong the inning, but reliever Chris Booker came on to strike out pinch-hitter Ryan Spilborghs, working out of a 3-1 jam thanks to a nasty slider for strike two and a devastating forkball for strike three.

Jon Rauch (5-2) then pitched the eighth to earn the win, and Chad Cordero overcame a one-out double to pitch a scoreless ninth, earn his 19th save and cap an impressive series for the Washington pitching staff.

“It’s something we didn’t expect,” Cordero said. “That may be one of the best-hitting clubs in the National League. To be able to go out there and hold them down all week, three or four hits a game, that’s huge for us.”

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