For the first time in his career, Nate Karns climbed onto a major league mound to face big league hitters. The 25-year-old starter has faced a long road to this point: a 2009 draft pick who didn’t really pitch in the minors until 2011 because of a shoulder injury and subsequent surgery, only to become the Nationals’ 2012 minor league pitcher of the year.
On Monday at Tradition Field in Port St. Lucie, Karns ran out to the mound in the sixth inning for his first appearance of spring training and showcased the ability that the Nationals have been impressed with. Karns fired two strong innings, striking out three batters and allowing only one single. He showed the major league potential of his right arm. His fastball, which was between 93 and 97 mph on the stadium scoreboard, was explosive and effective. The adrenaline was coursing through his veins just as fast.
“I was definitely excited to be out there,” said Karns, who was invited to big league camp because he was placed on the 40-man roster this winter to protect him from the Rule 5 draft. “Something I’ve been looking forward to for a long time. I felt comfortable after that first batter or two. And after that it was just another game and went at it like that way.”
It was readily apparent what the Nationals love about Karns within his first frame. He challenged Mets hitters with his four-seam and two-seam fastballs. The big, hard-throwing right-hander jumped on David Wright, getting him to 0-2 before the veteran fought back and singled the 10th pitch of the at-bat. Karns struck out Mets slugger Ike Davis looking on three pitches. An inning later, he fanned Mike Baxter and John Buck back-to-back.
“He’s got a great future,” Manager Davey Johnson said. “He just needs some innings.”
“[He’s got] easy cheese,” said reliever Ryan Mattheus, who struck out two in the ninth to close out the game.
To start, Karns struggled to locate his curveball because his arm was moving too fast, a result of his nerves. Once he calmed, he threw a handful of effective breaking pitches. When he first came into the dugout, Johnson and pitching coach Steve McCatty reminded Karns to breathe and relax. They noticed his red and sweaty face as a sign of a young, nervous rookie. “Everything worked out and I couldn’t be happier,” Karns said.
Karns’s chances of making the team are minute given his small body of work since recovering from surgery. Last year he tossed 116 innings between Class A Hagerstown and Potomac, mainly as a starter in his final restricted season before the reins come off. But Karns, at least in his mind, is approaching this spring training camp experience with wide eyes, acting like a sponge and playing for a spot in the bullpen.
“I just want to be competitive,” he said. “I don’t have a spot on the team and I’m fighting for something. And if it doesn’t work out gotta go back to the minors and grind my way back up. So definitely going to take that approach for the rest of my career and every time out there. It’s a game and I’m going to compete to win.”
Karns said his first big league camp experience has been “a lot to take in.” He arrived in camp hoping to continue to work on his fastball command. Though he wasn’t sharp with his offspeed pitches on Monday, he knows that’s a byproduct of a well-placed fastball and will fall in place in due time. His 93-to-97 mph range of speed on his fastball was the same as last season, he said, and a good sign.
“I feel like I did a lot in the offseason to strengthen my lower body and give me some more endurance,” he said. “If I get a couple more ticks on the radar that’s a bonus. But it doesn’t really matter if it’s at the backstop, you want to throw them for strikes.”
As he spoke to reporters at his locker in the visiting locker room, Mattheus overheard Karns’s comment.
“A couple more ticks! You want to throw 105?” he asked.
“Who doesn’t want to throw 105?” Karns responded.