- The Washington Times - Friday, March 30, 2007

LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. — Austin Kearns has the comfort of a new contract and the responsibility of a cleanup hitter as he nears his first Opening Day with the Washington Nationals.

With first baseman Nick Johnson out until possibly the All-Star break, the 26-year-old right fielder will have the job of protecting No. 3 hitter Ryan Zimmerman in manager Manny Acta’s lineup.

“He’s very important,” Acta said of Kearns. “He showed last year that he was injury-free, and we really need him out there on an everyday basis. Without Nick Johnson here, his importance rises.

“It’s going to be a full season for him over here. Now he doesn’t have to make any type of adjustments. He knows he’s going to be here for the long term, so I think that will only help him.”

During the offseason, Kearns signed a three-year deal that guarantees him $17.5 million. Kearns, acquired from the Cincinnati Reds in July, is one of the building blocks for the club’s future.

“I would rather have people have expectations than none,” Kearns said. “That’s fine. There’s always going to be expectations, and you welcome that.”

The Nationals dealt relievers Gary Majewski and Bill Bray, shortstop Royce Clayton, infielder Brendan Harris, and minor league pitcher Daryl Thompson to the Reds for Kearns, second baseman Felipe Lopez and reliever Ryan Wagner. Kearns hit .250 with eight home runs and 36 RBI in 212 at-bats over 63 games with Washington after the deal.

Overall last season, Kearns established career highs in hits (142), total bases (251), doubles (33), home runs (24), RBI (86), walks (76) and games (150). This will be his fourth season in the big leagues.

“He hasn’t done what everyone in baseball, including myself, expects out of him, but in his defense he has been hurt quite a bit,” Acta said. “He’s just entering his prime right now. So I think we’re going to have the best years of Austin in Washington. He’s capable of over 25 home runs and over 100 RBI.”

With Alfonso Soriano gone via free agency, Kearns becomes the top power hitter among the Nationals’ outfielders. He will bat fourth while Johnson rehabilitates the leg he broke in a collision with Kearns in September.

“I feel like I’m getting better and getting where I need to be,” Kearns said. “I had some injuries that broke up some time, but I’ve stayed healthy the last couple years. I think it’s kind of a process, and I’m looking for it to all come together.”

Kearns’ main concern this season is to help the Nationals in their rebuilding process.

“I would say the team could surprise a lot of people,” Kearns said. “I’m not saying by surprise to go out and win the division or something like that, but I think we can play good baseball and be very respectable. I look forward to doing that. We’ve got a lot of guys that enjoy playing the game and have fun, and I think that’s going to carry over on the field.”

When Johnson returns, Kearns likely will be moved down to the No. 5 batting slot.

“In the ideal world, we wanted to have Johnson sandwiched in between [Zimmerman and Kearns] and Johnson protecting Zimmerman and him protecting Johnson,” Acta said. “But that’s what we have now, and that’s going to be part of his job here.”

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