PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. — The road Nate Karns took the mound at Tradition Field Monday night was by no means direct. It made pit stops in doctors’ offices, an operating table, and ballparks littering the the low levels of the minor leagues.
But Karns, the Washington Nationals’ 2012 minor league Pitcher of the Year, took the mound in a major league spring training game and proved just why the organization has thought so highly of him through it all.
“I was a little nervous at first,” he said. “Not going to lie.”
Karns pitched the sixth and seventh innings in the Nationals’ 6-4 victory over the New York Mets, facing the likes of David Wright, Ike Davis, Marlon Byrd, Kirk Nieuwenhuis and Mike Baxter — all major league players. He pitched two scoreless innings, struck out three and allowed one single.
When he came in from his first inning of work, his face reddened from the rush of it all, pitching coach Steve McCatty felt he should offer the 25-year-old one reminder: Breathe.
He relied primarily on his fastball, clocked on the stadium gun anywhere between 93 and 96 mph, but he rushed his curveball a bit. Admittedly, he could only control the adrenaline coursing through his veins so much.
“(I was) a little amped,” he said. “My adrenaline was going. My arm felt really fast. It just took me a couple pitches to kind of get settled in and dialed in and after that, I felt fine.”
“His fastball was so explosive and he was locating it so well, he didn’t need much else,” said manager Davey Johnson. “He’s got a great future.”
Karns has never pitched above high Single-A Potomac, but after shoulder surgery derailed the first few years of his career, he’s only had two minor league seasons. In 2012 he was 11-4 with a 2.17 ERA between Single-A Hagerstown and Potomac and his career mark is 2.28 in 171 1/3 innings.
Karns wants to work on his fastball command this spring, he said, his “bread and butter last year.”
“Once I get that, I feel most of my secondary pitches will fall into place. Today I struggled with secondary. Threw a few good curveballs, changeup wasn’t there at all today, but I’ve got another day and I’ll go back and work on that tomorrow.”
Karns’ small body of minor league work may make it seem as though he’s a young prospect, but there is a maturity that comes with age and he seems far more comfortable handling his first big league camp than the average guy with two minor league seasons under their belt.
Asked if the 93-96-mph range was usual for him, Karns was honest. He’d been around there last season, but with his strength work this offseason he thought he might “get a couple more ticks on the radar” as a bonus.
From the corner, Nationals’ right-hander Ryan Mattheus overheard Karns tell reporters that.
“A couple more ticks?” Mattheus asked, his voice playfully incredulous. “You want to throw 105?”
Karns laughed. “Well, who doesn’t want to throw 105?” he said with a shrug.
On some level, Karns understands that he most likely won’t be breaking camp with the Nationals this season. But the organization thought enough of him to put him on their 40-man roster this offseason and that conversation that often comes up about starting pitching depth for the major league roster no doubt includes Karns, should he continue to progress.
“(Being in big league camp is) a lot to take in every day,” he said. “I sit there and just kind of observe all the guys who’ve established themselves and watch how they go about their business and prepare their body and mental approach. Hopefully it’ll rub off on me after camp and maybe I’ll take it on with me during the season.”