To understand the challenge that major league hitters present to Nate Karns, it’s important to first know that the hulking forms staring back at him from the batter’s box are not that scary to the Washington Nationals right-hander.
They do not present nearly the toughest challenge Karns has faced in his career — or his life.
“Right now, I’m the happiest kid in the world,” said Karns, who will take his 0-1 record and 6.00 ERA to the mound for his third major league start Saturday against the Minnesota Twins.
To understand why, go back a few years.
Back through the grueling rehab that followed 2010 surgery to repair a superior labral tear in his pitching shoulder. Through more than a year of work on the minor league fields in Viera., Fla., where “I think a lot of people were tired of seeing me.”
Back through the difficult years in his personal life, when his mother, Tambra, was battling cancer — twice — and dealing with severe epilepsy. And then suffered a stroke and severe amnesia after his freshman year at NC State.
“We’ve sat in a lot of stadiums for a lot of reasons over the years,” Tambra said from the stands at Turner Field last weekend with her daughter, Amanda, who hadn’t seen her brother pitch in person since he was in college in 2009.
“But [Karns’ major league debut] was so different. All that work, all that effort — and there’s still a long ways to go — but at that point, it didn’t matter. It was official.”
A bubbly woman with caramel-colored hair, Tambra had a hard time keeping the smile from her face on this day.
It had been a long one. She and Amanda flew to Atlanta from their home near Dallas that morning with Karns set to pitch the following day. Her husband, David, an aerospace engineer for the military, couldn’t make it, but he’d been at Karns’ debut five days earlier in Washington.
The travel, the busy nature of it all, did not bother her. This is the same woman who had beaten all of the aforementioned ailments and is doing well. The one who said she still has “mixed” feelings about her son’s decision to transfer to Texas Tech after her stroke, to be closer to her and home, because she liked the situation he had in Raleigh.
The same woman who tried to strap on catcher’s gear when Karns was in junior high and already throwing hard enough to beat up his father pretty good, just to catch a bullpen session he needed.
“She’s a trooper,” Karns said. “It [stunk] leaving [NC State]. But I had to do something that made me feel better for my family. I love my family a lot. If something was to happen, I at least want to get back in time.”
Karns spoke from the dugout at Turner Field — coincidentally the same field that served as the setting for his first experience playing in a major league stadium during a Perfect Game showcase as a high schooler. He remembered the field and the dugouts, and the bullpen in which he warmed up.
He especially remembered how he got there: in a rented van with a few of his summer ball teammates, driving down from Cincinnati. This trip was a little different.
“It’s just awesome how everything’s coming together,” Karns said. “In Double-A, I had no thought that this was going to happen.”
Karns’ major league debut May 28 came out of necessity, with Ross Detwiler unable to start because of an oblique injury. But it was the work Karns put in after shoulder surgery, the effort to allow his body to once again showcase his talent despite what can be a debilitating injury for pitchers, that brought him to that moment.
“[After I had surgery] I just sat down and talked to [Nationals assistant trainer Steve Gober] for awhile and he was like, ‘Hey, man, surgery fixes the problem. But what separates you from being injured and healthy is the work you put into it after,’” Karns said.
“We don’t accept the words, ‘No, we can’t,’” Tambra said of a family philosophy she tried to teach her children. “We just try and find a different way.”
Members of the Nationals training staff who worked with Karns through his rehab said his debut was perhaps the proudest they had been since Chien-Ming Wang, who rehabbed a shoulder injury for two years with them, took the mound again in a big league game.
The Nationals don’t know how long Karns will be a member of their rotation this season. Detwiler is working his way back, but Stephen Strasburg is also out with a lat strain and their pitching staff is in a significant state of flux.
Karns is aiming to get a little better each time out, and the Nationals hope he will be able to do that against the Twins on Friday.
However long it lasts, Karns — and his family — will surely enjoy the ride.
“I am just looking at whatever that day is,” Karns said. “It’s out of my control. I’m just thankful for every day I have up here. If I have to go back [to the minors], it’s just another day I have to go back to work.
“If they want to keep me around for another couple of days or the rest of the year, I’m not going to argue with them one bit.”