Kearns plays role of hero in Nats' win

Kearns plays role of hero in Nats' win

WASHINGTON -- Nationals outfielder Austin Kearns has a fan in manager Manny Acta. No matter what Kearns does on the field, the skipper always talks about how Kearns works hard and wants to win on a regular basis.

But more is expected out of Kearns. After he was acquired from the Reds in July 2006, Kearns was called a potential superstar by several members of the Nationals' front office. But Kearns hasn't reached that superstar level yet in almost two years with the club.

It took a second-half surge to help make his offensive numbers respectable last year. Entering Thursday's action, Kearns was struggling with the bat, hitting .182 with two home runs and 10 RBIs.

But there is Acta defending Kearns, like he always does.

"There is so much more to Austin Kearns than the expectations the outside world put on him," Acta said. "The expectations were very high on him. You know, 40 home runs and 120 RBIs. I think a lot of people underestimate what Austin brings to our club on the field. He is one of the best in right field. He can field, throw, he's accurate.

"He plays hard. Nobody can accuse him of lollygagging -- ever. He will not take a day off, unless I force him to. Those are the things that I value. So when people work hard, we have the tendency to believe in them, and believe they are going to come out of any slump that they have."

Against the Pirates on Thursday night, Kearns wasn't in his hitting funk. He had two hits and his single in the bottom of the eighth inning helped the Nationals defeat the Pirates, 3-2, at Nationals Park.

By getting those two hits, Kearns raised his batting average to .194. The score was tied at 2 and John Grabow was on the mound in the eighth inning. The Nationals had runners on first and second and one out when Kearns singled to right to drive in Cristian Guzman. It was Kearns' first RBI since April 20 against the Marlins and the first earned run given up by Grabow this year.

As is his custom, Kearns was low-key when talking about the game-winning hit.

"I was trying to get the guy home. It's pretty simple as that. I was just trying to get a pitch, and not try to do too much," Kearns said. "I'm happy that I'm having better at-bats and you always want to get results. Just as far as feeling better at the plate, that's always a good sign. You want to get the results, too.

"First and foremost, I want to win. When we win, I'm happy. You always want to help out. When you are winning, it makes things easier."

Before Kearns' heroics, the Nationals took a 2-0 lead in the bottom of the first inning off Pirates left-hander Zach Duke. With runners on second and third, one out and the infield in, Wil Nieves singled up the middle to drive in Lastings Milledge and Kearns.

After that, Dukes retired 16 out of the next 19 hitters that he faced.

But Pittsburgh used the long ball to tie the game at 2 off left-hander Odalis Perez. In the fourth inning, Freddy Sanchez homered and Ryan Doumit hit another out of the park three innings later.

Perez ended up pitching another quality game. He pitched seven innings and gave up the two runs on three hits. However, he picked up his fourth no-decision of the season. For the season, Perez is 0-3 with a 3.18 ERA.

Perez continues to say that he is not frustrated that he hasn't picked up a win this season.

I'm just happy that we won." Perez said. "I feel good. We have been pushing together. It has been great. We had a really bad losing record. The way we have been playing the last eight or nine games, we have been playing great."

The Nationals have won four straight games and seven out of their last nine to improve their record to 12-17. Closer Jon Rauch, who picked up his sixth save, believes the team will surprise some people.

"We are pretty good. ... I think we are going to turn a lot of eyes and heads," Rauch said. "We might not have the biggest names, but we are going to come out and play. We are playing good baseball and we are having fun."

Bill Ladson is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.