- The Washington Times - Monday, July 27, 2009

One game-winning hit will not change the way Austin Kearns’ train wreck of a season is perceived around baseball. The stats do not lie, and there is no stat that suggests the 29-year-old outfielder is having anything but a miserable year while making far more money than he deserves.

But there is no player inside the Washington Nationals’ clubhouse who has handled failure with more dignity than Kearns. And that’s the reason he remains among the most popular personalities in that room, no matter the stats.

That’s also the reason the entire dugout poured onto the field Sunday afternoon to mob Kearns moments after his 10th-inning single gave the home team a 3-2 victory against the San Diego Padres.

“The one guy that needed that was Austin,” left-hander John Lannan said. “I’m glad it happened for him. He’s a great teammate and a great ballplayer.”

In a season full of misery for the Nationals, no one has come to represent those struggles on a personal level like Kearns. Already under the microscope when the season began, he hasn’t come anywhere close to living up to the $8 million salary ex-general manager Jim Bowden handed him 2 1/2 years ago.

Kearns’ numbers when he stepped to the plate with two on and two outs Sunday said it all: a .196 average, one RBI since May 8 and a .176 slugging percentage during that time. There probably was no one the Padres would have rather seen step to the plate at that moment.

But after taking ball one from right-hander Greg Burke, Kearns roped a solid base hit to right-center, bringing Nyjer Morgan home without a throw and the entire Washington dugout out to pummel the hitter in a fashion befitting such a walk-off win.

Josh Willingham was the first to reach Kearns - “I told [Adam Dunn] as soon as he hit the ball, ‘I’m gonna kill him,’ ” the outfielder said - and plenty more followed.

Kearns, who has been on the giving end of plenty of dogpiles, was well-prepared to defend himself. Asked who got the best shot in on him, Kearns replied: “Nobody. I was ready. I figured they were coming.”

Truth be told, Kearns never should have even gotten to the plate in the 10th inning of a tie game. The Nationals were in position to win in regulation, thanks to another brilliant performance by Lannan, who threw eight innings of one-run ball without breaking a sweat in muggy conditions.

There is efficiency, and then there is John Lannan efficiency, and the latter was on full display. The left-hander threw only 81 pitches, 59 of them for strikes. During one three-inning stretch, he threw more warm-up tosses (24) than actual pitches (19).

“I was just trying to do the same thing I’ve been doing, and they were really aggressive today,” he said. “I kept throwing sinker away, sinker away, but they weren’t doing anything with it. So why go away from something that’s working so well?”

The Nationals put their young ace - owner of a 2.77 ERA in his past 19 starts - in position to earn his eighth win thanks to a Willingham solo homer in the seventh and Dunn’s RBI single in the eighth following a ghastly error by Padres second baseman Luis Rodriguez.

But Mike MacDougal couldn’t close it out, serving up a towering homer to Kyle Blanks with two outs in the ninth.

“It did take the wind out of our sails there for a little bit,” interim manager Jim Riggleman said.

Because Riggleman had pulled Dunn and Willingham for defensive purposes in the ninth, two of the Nationals’ best hitters weren’t available for extra innings. Instead, Kearns found himself in Dunn’s spot and thus in the spotlight after his teammates got two on with two outs in the 10th.

That made the winning single all the more stunning and satisfying for the Nationals.

“In a perfect world, we close it down in the ninth and we never get to that point,” Riggleman said. “But I wouldn’t trade it for anything now.”

That sentiment permeated the clubhouse. A guy making $8 million and struggling to reach the Mendoza line isn’t often Mr. Popularity. The Nationals, though, have shown Kearns undying support, and that has meant the world to an underachieving ballplayer who on Sunday finally got to enjoy his moment.

“If you ask any player, I think the opinion of your teammates and the people who wear the uniform every day - that means more than anything,” Kearns said. “We’ve all been there. Everybody’s struggled. A lot of these guys have been through it.

“That’s why you have 25 guys here - pick each other up.”

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