On Wednesday night, Karns suffered through his worst outing of the spring, giving up nine runs (seven earned) on eight hits with two walks and four strikeouts in 21/3 innings against the A’s.
SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — The competition for the No. 5 spot in the Mariners’ starting rotation could have been claimed Wednesday night with a dominant performance from Nathan Karns.
Instead, the Mariners still are looking for one of the two competing pitchers — Karns and James Paxton — to take control. The race seems pretty even.
Karns suffered through his worst outing of the spring, giving up nine runs (seven earned) on eight hits with two walks and four strikeouts in 21/3 innings against the Oakland A’s in Peoria, Ariz.
Manager Scott Servais was eager to see Karns’ fifth start of the spring, expecting to see him build off the final two innings of the previous start, in which he looked outstanding.
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Instead, he saw a pitcher who looked out of rhythm, struggled to find his pace, couldn’t locate his fastball and pitched from behind.
If Karns had any edge in the competition based on spring outings, it was buried under a passel of base runners.
“You know you want guys to go out and throw the ball well and feel good about themselves,” Servais said Thursday. “Obviously, it was not a great night (Wednesday), but that’s kind of just where we are at. It doesn’t do any good to fret about it.”
A week ago, it was Paxton’s turn to pitch a clunker. Against the same A’s team in Mesa, Paxton also failed to make it out of the third inning, giving up seven runs on six hits with four walks and two strikeouts.
Servais met with Karns on Thursday to discuss his latest outing and to see where he was mentally. He let Karns do most of the talking.
“I listened to Nate Karns,” Servais said. “He wants to do well. He’s coming to a new club and wants to get off to a new start. It’s not always perfect. He’ll be fine.”
Where does the competition stand? Well, the spring numbers aren’t pretty. Karns has made five Cactus League starts, pitching 16 innings and giving up 15 runs (12 earned). He has allowed 21 hits with seven walks and 12 strikeouts. Paxton has made four Cactus League starts and one minor-league start. He has thrown 16 innings, giving up 14 runs (13 earned) on 20 hits. He has walked six and struck out 14.
Servais has made it clear the decision won’t be based solely on spring numbers. They’ll also weigh the pitchers’ “track record.”
Karns pitched almost a full season in 2015, being shut down in the final month because of an innings limit. He made 26 starts and one relief appearance, going 7-5 with a 3.67 ERA in 147 innings for Tampa Bay. It was a solid if not spectacular rookie season. The belief is that Karns can be a consistent back-of-the-rotation starter who can be relied upon to take the ball every fifth day and give the Mariners starts with a chance to win the game. He had 17 consecutive starts last season in which he pitched five innings or more.
Paxton is a mercurial talent and has the larger upside. When healthy, he can be dominant, but he hasn’t been healthy much the past two seasons. He has made just 13 big-league starts each year while dealing with an assortment of finger and shoulder injuries. In 30 career starts, he has had 11 that were five innings or less, including nine over the past two seasons that put a big strain on the bullpen.
But as much as track records matter, the Mariners also have to determine which pitcher is performing at a higher level. Neither has done that.
Each pitcher will have two more starts this spring. The Mariners are waiting for one of them to make the decision a little easier.
• The flu bug that has hit the Mariners’ clubhouse claimed another victim. Shortstop Ketel Marte was scratched from the starting lineup Thursday against the Rockies. Servais also is under the weather. Franklin Gutierrez (flu) is feeling better. He participated in the morning workout and Servais expects him to play Friday in Peoria.
• Nate Boyer will speak to the Mariners at their Friday morning meeting and attend morning workouts Friday and Saturday. Boyer, an aspiring NFL long snapper who had a 2015 preseason stint with the Seahawks, is a former Green Beret who walked on to the University of Texas football team.