Kearns homers, Nationals beat Astros in 10 innings

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VIERA, Fla. (AP)—Austin Kearns is making up for lost time, and a reconfigured batting stance is paying dividends.

Kearns hit a three-run homer and a double in the Washington Nationals’ 8-6, 10-inning victory over the Houston Astros on Monday night, further proof that his work with new hitting coach Rick Eckstein has been beneficial.

“I hit it pretty good,” Kearns said of his first-inning homer. “I got a pitch to handle and I didn’t miss it.”

A blister on his left palm kept Kearns out of the lineup after the Nationals’ Grapefruit League opener Feb. 25 and he missed critical opportunities to claim a spot in Washington’s crowded outfield picture.

This spring, Kearns has demonstrated a more open stance at Eckstein’s suggestion. The more balanced approach helps him keep his hands level and allows him to drive the ball more effectively.

Elbow surgery and a foot injury put Kearns on the disabled list twice last season, when he hit .217 with a career-low seven home runs in 86 games.

“It’s just mechanical stuff,” said Kearns, now 3-for-6 in exhibition play. “You want it to translate into a game. Sometimes it does, sometimes it doesn’t, but you try to repeat it.”

Kearns homered to left-center off right-hander Felipe Paulino in the first, capping a five-run inning. After being hit by Jose Capellan’s pitch in the third, Kearns doubled to left off Capellan in the fifth.

“That was a nice swing he put on that pitch,” Nationals manager Many Acta said about Kearns’ homer. “Good velocity, middle in. That adjustment he made has paid off.”

Washington won it on Brad Eldred’s two-run homer to left off Sergio Perez in the 10th, after the Astros scored a run in the ninth to force extra innings. Mike Manzella led off the ninth with a walk, went to third on Jason Smith’s single to right and scored on John Gall’s double-play grounder.

Nationals right-hander Collin Balester, bidding for one of the final two spots in the starting rotation, might have pitched himself out of the competition with a shaky three innings. He allowed four runs and four hits, giving up a solo homer to Hunter Pence in the first and a two-run shot by Humberto Quintero in the second.

“Just leaving the ball up. … I was behind in the count, left a fastball up and they hit it pretty good,” said Balester, who walked one and struck out two as his ERA rose to 9.00.

Paulino, making his first spring start after missing last year with a pinched nerve in his right arm, was equally ineffective. He gave up six runs and seven hits, walked three and struck out one.

“He’s got good stuff, but had poor command,” Houston manager Cecil Cooper said.

Cooper was more complimentary of Capellan, who threw three scoreless innings, allowing only two singles.

“He’s pitching himself right into pitching (more),” Cooper said.

The Astros have gone 10 games without a victory since opening their spring schedule with a Feb. 25 win over Washington. Since then they are 0-8 with two Grapefruit League ties.

“Things were a little better offensively,” Cooper said, “so those are things to be encouraged by. But it seems like we have that one (bad) inning.”

Marco Estrada pitched a scoreless 10th for the win.

Notes

With Panama eliminated from the World Baseball Classic, OF Carlos Lee will return to the Astros on Tuesday, Cooper said. … OF Wily Mo Pena, who has been sidelined with a right shoulder problem, served as the Nationals’ designated hitter and went 1-for-5. “He’s ready to swing the bat, but he’s not ready to play in the field yet. We don’t have a timetable for that yet,” Acta said. “As soon as he’s ready to be in the field, he’ll be in the field.” … Houston RHP Brandon Backe will miss at least one start while recovering from a strained left intercostal muscle. Backe left Sunday’s start in Bradenton after two innings.

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