CINCINNATI — The curly-haired fellow in sandals, baseball pants and a T-shirt had just entered the Washington Nationals clubhouse at Great American Ballpark when Dmitri Young issued an official screeching.
”Welcome back, White Power,“ called out Young.
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Austin Kearns turned, grinned, then slapped hands with his wise-cracking teammate.
”It is good to be back,“ said Kearns.
Better to not go back, however.
”A fresh start, that's how I'm looking at it,“ said the Lexington native who returned to his parent club after a 40-day stint on the disabled list and went 1-for-4 with an RBI and a running catch. ”I want to start over, and go from here.“
After all, by the time the Nationals decided the gremlins floating around in Kearns' right throwing elbow were evil enough to warrant surgery, the 28-year-old was batting a miserly .187 with three homers and 16 RBI.
The Nats' regular right-fielder had gone an abysmal 1-for-25 before finally being placed on the disabled list May 22. A day later, May 23, Kearns underwent arthroscopic surgery to sweep the loose bodies from his right elbow.
”I knew something was in there,“ said Kearns last night before his Nationals played his former team, the Reds. ”I could play with it, but then it got to the point where I couldn't extend it.“
The Nationals knew something wasn't quite right, too. After inking a three-year, $17.5 million contract (with a club option on a fourth year that would hike the pay to $26.5 million), Kearns hit .266 with 16 homers and 74 RBI in 161 games.
He did so despite hitting all of .228 at old RFK in thankfully its final year as Washington's home. The Nationals moved into brand-new and hitter-friendly Nationals Park in March. Surely Kearns would benefit. Didn't happen. Now we know why.
”To be truthful, I didn't look at it like that,“ he said. ”As long as I could go out there and play, I was going to play. That's the way I looked at it.“
He'd been through such frustration before. The year was 2004. A Reds first-round pick, seventh overall, in 1998, Kearns had batted a stylish .315 as a rookie in 2003. But his sophomore season was wrecked by right-thumb surgery. His output was limited to 64 games. That preceded the nightmare of '05, when a rousing thud of a start saw him demoted to the minors. Even after making his Reds' return, he batted but .240.
Kearns was crafting a comeback in 2006 when, on July 13, former GM Wayne Krivsky stuck him in that controversial multi-player trade with Jim Bowden's Nationals, a deal that, to this point, has benefited neither team all that well.
No exception this year. For Washington, Kearns' injury is the norm. The Nationals have made 18 disabled-list moves involving 14 players.
”We've had a lot of guys hurt,“ said Kearns. ”I thought I was out of the woods on stuff with that. It had been a while. But luckily this was something they could fix, and I'd only be out four to six weeks.“
The time-frame turned out to be true. Kearns returned for rehab work last week, hitting a scorching .412 (7-for-17) in seven minor-league games. With Cincinnati next up on the Nats' agenda, he was able to spend Wednesday night at his home in Lexington, where sons Aubrey (3 in September) and Brady (2 in October) got the old man up early.
”They were up and ready to go,“ said a smiling Kearns.
Now Dad's ready to go. He struggled the first half last year, too, his average just .250 with five homers. After the All-Star break, however, his bat heated up to .285 with 44 RBI in 73 games.
”Hopefully,“ said Austin Kearns, ”that'll happen again.“