By Kevin Kelly
The Cincinnati Enquirer
Just in from a curtain call, Austin Kearns found himself surrounded.
The Reds outfielder, soaked in the hot glare of television lights and the hum of churning tape recorders, spent the next several minutes detailing the two-run walk-off homer he hit to beat the Phillies on April 11 at Great American Ball Park.
In relative darkness, away from the attention, Barry Larkin eyed the scene from his corner locker in the Reds clubhouse.
"He's as mature as any young player I've ever played with," the 16-year veteran shortstop gushed. "Heck, he's more mature than a lot of veterans in this game."
More than his bat, which is tied for the major league home run lead with nine, or his right arm, once capable of throwing a 90 mph fastball, which now picks off base runners with precision-guided throws from the outfield, it is the maturity of the 22-year-old Kearns that strikes observers the most.
"He started out as a very mature player," Reds manager Bob Boone said. "He's going to be really good. He has a simple approach and if he stays with it, he'll be a terrific player."
As of now - though he has less than a full season of experience (131 games entering Sunday) - Kearns appears on the cusp of being just that.
Because he has more homers than Alex Rodriguez, Sammy Sosa and Barry Bonds through Cincinnati's first 24 games, the national media is beginning to discover what Reds officials knew when they used the seventh overall pick in the 1998 draft to get Lexington Lafayette's star.
"He's a complete player," said Jim Bowden, the Reds general manager. "He excels at every part of the game. He has a great makeup: special intelligence, special baseball instincts, understands hitting and has a tremendous approach to it, tremendous power, good fielder, good arm.
"He always does the little things. He's a quiet leader and he's a very, very special talent. You don't get them very often."
Kearns' nine homers this month were one shy of the club record held by Tony Perez. And before Saturday's game, his .641 slugging percentage was eighth in the National League, ahead of Gary Sheffield and J.T. Snow.
"I think you learn something every year, every day," said Kearns, who is hitting .288 with 19 RBI through 24 games.
"You learn what you can do with certain pitches. You learn what pitches to lay off of. You learn your strike zone.
"There's all sorts of stuff that you can learn all the time."
Nobody really expects Kearns to keep hitting at a clip that would give him more than 60 homers.
But the potential to hit his share is present.
"He's very serious about his hitting," Reds hitting coach Tom Robson said. "All the moving parts he has are not very complicated. You watch him, he still has to have the time, but he's simplified so much, it's not really a big deal.
"He knows he's going to hit the ball.... It looks like he's going to hit every pitch."
Helping matters so far is Kearns' health.
Team medical director Dr. Timothy Kremchek removed bone chips from Kearns' left elbow on March 10.
Less than two weeks - and one thank-you note to Kremchek - later, Kearns was back in the spring training lineup.
"I was just happy to get it done and get back so quick," said Kearns, who also worked with a personal trainer during the offseason to better prepare for the rigors of a 162-game season.
"The elbow still gets a little achy every now and then. But I couldn't even extend my arm all the way out. It was bad there before I had surgery. Now it's a big difference."
What opposing pitchers didn't know about Kearns in his 107-game rookie season last year when he hit .315 with 13 homers before a hamstring injury in August ended his year, they do now.
He's also learned. His 15 walks after Saturday's game led the Reds.
"I just try to get the ball to stay in the middle of the field and drive it," he said. "I really don't have a home run swing or hit a bunch of long fly balls.
"I just look for something that I can drive. I don't really go up there and sit on one pitch. I just try to react and get something out over the plate that I can hit hard."
Hitting the ball hard has not been a problem this season.
But just how good do the Reds think their right fielder can be in the years to come?
"As good as we can imagine," Boone said. "He has ability, maturity. The sky's the limit."
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