Right fielder on pace for 30 HRs and 111 RBI
BY JOHN FAY | ENQUIRER STAFF WRITER
After 2½ seasons of struggling, and even a banishment to Triple-A, the Austin Kearns of 2003 is back.
That's the gap-finding, short-stroke, line-drive-hitting outfielder who seemed on the brink of stardom three Mays ago.
"I'm sure he doesn't want a day off (Monday) with the way he's swinging," Reds manager Jerry Narron said.
A doubleheader would have been just fine for Kearns on Monday after the way he hit Sunday. He went 3-for-4 with two doubles and a home run in the 9-8 victory over the Arizona Diamondbacks.
Kearns is hitting .328 with six home runs and 22 RBI. That's a 30-home run, 111-RBI pace.
He went into Monday ranked ninth in the National League in average, was tied for fourth in doubles (11), and was tied for third in hits (39).
His on-base percentage (.371) and slugging percentage (.571) are also respectable.
Most importantly, Kearns is hitting .323 (10-for-23) with runners in scoring position. That's the best on the team. He also leads the Reds with 13 multi-hit games.
It's been a long road back for the outfielder since his ill-fated meeting with Ray King at home plate on May 21, 2003. The collision led to shoulder surgery.
Kearns' run of bad luck continued in 2004. He missed 85 games with a broken wrist and a nagging thumb injury. Last year, Kearns was healthy, but he struggled. He shared right field with Wily Mo Peña, and knew he was an 0-for-4 day at the plate away from sitting.
A slow start, in fact, took him out of the lineup and straight to Triple-A Louisville. He played in 112 games for the Reds, and hit .240 with 18 home runs and 67 RBI.
Kearns, who turns 26 May 20, says his success this season is due to being healthy and getting regular at-bats.
"I feel better," he said. "Last year, I'd feel good one night. Then the next night, I'd feel like I never played before. It's a matter of feeling good consistently."
Kearns is on a tear right now. He's hit in eight of his last nine games, and has a .500 average (16-for-32) over that span.
It's not as if Kearns remade himself as a player. He's simply tapping into his potential.
"I really don't know if there's a big difference (from this year to last)," Narron said. "I don't know if he's doing anything different. I know he knows he's going to be in the lineup every day. That might help him some."
Hitting coach Chris Chambliss made a minor adjustment with Kearns during spring training.
"The thing we did with him is we've got his hands away from his body," Chambliss said. "That's something we did all the way back in spring training. It gives him much more freedom with his hands. He's letting them go."
It seems to be working. Look at Kearns' power numbers after 32 games - six home runs, 22 RBI. It took him 51 games in 2005 to achieve similar stats (six homers, 25 RBI). That's when he was sent to Louisville.
That won't happen this year. The Reds staked their future to Kearns when they traded Peña to Boston. Kearns might have brought more in a trade. But Kearns is a better fit for Narron and general manager Wayne Krivsky.
He's an excellent right fielder, with a world-class arm. He's also a smart baserunner.
"He's a pretty good player," Narron said.
And a pretty hot hitter, too.
"He's seeing the ball well," Chambliss said. "He's swinging at strikes. He's being selective. It's all a matter of seeing what you're swinging at."
That's come from regular at-bats. Kearns has started all but one game this year.
"When you get a lot of at-bats, you start seeing the ball good and swing at strikes," Chambliss said.
"I'm feeling good," he said. "I'm seeing the ball well. When you're feeling good and seeing the ball well, you don't make mistakes."