Kearns well-armed but born to hit

Wednesday, June 3, 1998

The Cincinnati Enquirer

Austin Kearns

Austin Kearns wonders what became of his fastball. But he does not brood about it. The baseball gods have blessed him so abundantly that he barely misses his missing miles per hour.

He is curious about their whereabouts, but only about as much as he might be about a sock that disappeared in the dryer. Kearns has thrown five no-hitters for Lexington Lafayette High School, but the Cincinnati Reds drafted him Tuesday as a slugging outfielder. If his pitching days are not done, they are dwindling.

"I don't know what happened," Kearns said Tuesday afternoon. "This winter I was throwing in the low 90s. I came out this spring and went to the mound and it just wasn't there. It wasn't any arm trouble or anything. I don't have the slightest clue what happened. I think it's all mechanical. I think if I had someone work with me, I could get it worked out."

A year ago, Austin Kearns was among the nation's leading pitching prospects. He struck out 136 batters in 78 innings, compiled an earned-run average of 0.73, and registered 94 mph on the radar guns. He was, as they say in the trade, "bringing it."

"If there's a better high school pitcher in the nation," Bryan Station High School coach Kevin Clary said, "I've never seen him."

That Kearns will start his professional career in right field instead of on the pitcher's mound speaks to his athleticism and his adaptability. Mainly, though, it is a testament to his power. Pitching may be baseball's scarcest commodity, but the guy who knocks the ball out of the park usually winds up playing every day.

Call him Babe Kearns

The prototype here is Babe Ruth. Given Jim Bowden's capacity for grandiose comparisons, we should probably expect nothing less of Austin Kearns. If he is ever to pitch for the Reds, it will be under circumstances similar to those that pressed Lenny Harris into service Monday night.

"With what he brings to the table with his bat, his arm and his legs, he could be a fourth hitter in the big leagues when you're contending for a title," said Al Goldis, the Reds' senior director of scouting and player development. "The ball jumps off his bat."

How much any of this has to do with the price of hot dogs remains to be seen. Robert Koontz, the Reds' regional scouting supervisor, says Kearns is the best high school hitter he has seen. Still, the kid has just turned 18 years old, is less than a week removed from his high school graduation, and is likely a long way from the major leagues.

Not since Dan Wilson (1990) has the Reds' No. 1 selection become a big-league regular. Not since Barry Larkin (1985) has the Reds' No. 1 selection become a certified star. As the seventh player picked, Austin Kearns is the Reds highest first rounder since 1992. That was the year the home team debated Derek Jeter but grabbed Chad Mottola. "Chad had four tools," Bowden said. "He just couldn't hit."

Hit early and often

Though Austin Kearns was known primarily for his pitching until this spring, he has always been both arm and hammer. As an eighth grader, he served as the designated hitter for the Lafayette High varsity, and he has sometimes acted as if pitching were an afterthought. His dog, after all, is named "Slugger," not "Strikeout."

"If you go down and see him pitch, you can tell he wants to hit," said Reds scouting director De Jon Watson.

Amateur coaches typically place their best athletes on the pitcher's mound and at shortstop. Discerning eyes can see different possibilities. When Johnny Bench was a high school senior, some scouts knew him only as a pitcher and a third baseman. Tony Robello happened to hang around long enough to see Bench behind the plate.

"When we took Paul O'Neill, he was a pitcher in Columbus," said Gene Bennett, Bowden's special assistant. "He asked us, "When will I pitch?' We told him, "You'll never be on the mound the rest of your life.' "

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