Photo by Rachel Zuckerman / NATS INSIDER
Austin Kearns belted two homers -- and almost a third -- against his former team.
Kearns heard the criticisms and the boos through much of 2008 and 2009, a pair of dreadful seasons that saw the outfielder go from a multimillionaire in Washington to a nonroster invitee in Cleveland.
All the while, Kearns knew what most everyone else did not: He was injured. In 2008, he had a stress fracture in his leg and bone chips in his elbow. In 2009, he had a tear in his thumb. All the ailments eventually required surgery, but before he would go under the knife, he insisted on playing through the pain.
Why? Why not just reveal how banged up he was and take himself out of the lineup?
"It's tough, man," he said. "You've got a lot of pride, no matter what. You want to be out there every day. Your teammates are out there. It's tough to say, 'I just can't go out there,' for anybody. I think for any player, that probably gets the better of you sometimes."
So Kearns will always be remembered as one of the worst players in Nationals history, certainly when his contract is taken into consideration. Which made his two-homer barrage in the Indians' 7-2 thumping of the Nats tonight sting all the more for fans back in D.C. who had to be asking why they never saw anything like that during the previous 3 1/2 years.
Oh, and did we mention that Kearns is now batting .307 with seven homers, 31 RBI and a .901 OPS that is nearly 200 points better than it was during his time in a Washington uniform?
"I don't know where we would be without him here," Manny Acta said.
And did we mention that the Nationals' revolving door of right fielders has posted a combined .738 OPS?
You can't fault Mike Rizzo for not bringing Kearns back last winter. After all, he still had a $10 million option on his contract, yet another inexplicable addendum thrown in there by Bowden. The Nats had to cut the cord and move on.
But that doesn't mean they couldn't appreciate Kearns' Ruthian performance tonight and feel good for an ex-teammate who remains a close friend to many on the roster.
"Yeah, I'm extremely happy the way he's playing," said Adam Dunn, who also was teammates with Kearns in Cincinnati at the start of both players' careers. "He's healthy for the first time in three or four years and swinging the bat well. I wish he wouldn't have beat us tonight, but I'm still happy to see him doing well."
Kearns, as always, shrugged off questions about his motivation playing against the team that dumped him. He's always been a bland quote, usually beginning his answers with such noncommittal lines as: "Aw, I don't know. I just gotta keep workin'."
But the Nationals always held Kearns in high regard as a person and appreciated the way he played through pain and never complained.
"He wants to play, obviously, like everyone wants to play," Dunn said. "But he wouldn't make a big deal about why he was stinking, and that's kind of why he had those bad years. That's the only reason it could be."
And what if Kearns hadn't been hurt? What would the end result have been?
"He'd still be here," Dunn said. "He'd still be here, because he's a really good player, and you're seeing it now. If he stays healthy, this is what he does. He hits 20-25 homers, he's going to drive in close to 100 and he's going to hit close to .300. That's the kind of player he is. That's what he's done his whole life when he's healthy."
I asked him after tonight's game if he wishes everyone in Washington had gotten to see the real Austin Kearns. True to form, he took the high road.
"You know, what happened, happened," he said. "I tried to go out there and play, and whatever. I definitely would have loved to play better, no doubt about it. But it happened. You learn from it and keep going."
Nationals fans have a right to consider Kearns a bust, and they have a right to be frustrated by his sudden turnaround this year in Cleveland.
But it's OK to feel a little good for a guy who went through a lot the last 3 1/2 years, took a lot of abuse, and somehow has emerged a better player and a better person for it.