Despite wandering command with his fastball and changeup and a passel of early baserunners, Nathan Karns was able to salvage his start Friday, going 42/3 innings, giving up one run on three hits with three walks and seven strikeouts against the Rangers.
PEORIA, Ariz. — Just about 90 minutes before Nathan Karns would take the mound at Peoria Stadium for his fourth start of the spring — a pivotal one in the competition for the No 5 spot in the starting rotation — his fellow competitor, James Paxton, walked by, fist-bumped Karns and said in earnest, “Go get ’em.”
Team still takes precedence over personal competition.
“It’s a numbers game, and we get that,” Karns said. “Obviously, there is a competition, but at the same time we are still teammates. There’s going to be points in the season where whoever makes the team that other person is going to be up, too. That’s just how it is. It’s a numbers game. It’s depth. There are going to be injuries and you are going to need more than five arms for a starting group.”
Less than 24 hours earlier, Paxton had slogged his way through an abysmal outing against the A’s and did nothing to help himself earn that spot. But he wasn’t going to ignore his teammate or hope for Karns to do the same.
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At times on Friday, it looked as though Karns might suffer a similar fate against the Rangers. Despite wandering command with his fastball and changeup, and a passel of early base runners, Karns was able to salvage his start, going 42/3 innings, giving up one run on three hits with three walks and seven strikeouts.
“First half not so good,” he said. “Second half much better. It was just one of those times where I came out and nothing really clicked right off the bat. I just kept plugging away, defense made big plays.”
It started early when he walked former Mariners farmhand James Jones — a player who likes to swing — on five pitches to start the game.
But Karns erased the base runner moments later with a near-perfect pickoff throw to first base to get the leaning Jones.
And that would be the theme of the first three innings of Karns’ outing. His wandering command of his fastball and changeup would lead to base runners and scoring chances.
“I was just out of rhythm,” he said. “Nothing felt clean. I wasn’t hitting my spots. I just didn’t feel comfortable out there the first two innings.
But instead of giving up the big hits like Paxton did against the A’s, Karns was able to get double plays in the second and third inning to work out of sticky situations.
The third inning — where he allowed his only run — was a prime example. Karns walked Alex Burg and Ryan Strausborger (the Nos. 8 and 9 hitters) to start the inning. After falling behind 3-1 to Jones, he got a ground ball to shortstop that Ketel Marte turned into a 6-4-3 double play.
“I told myself I have to make a pitch,” Karns said. “I was able to make a pitch and we got the double play, and that gave me more confidence right there.”
Karns gave up a double to Ian Desmond that scored a run. But he retired the next six batters he faced with four strikeouts.
He credited his catcher, Chris Iannetta, and pitching coach Mel Stottlemyre in helping him make midgame adjustments to help him find his lost rhythm and locate his command.
“Iannetta did a great job with that,” Karns said. “He recognized that fastballs were staying up in the zone and that’s kind of a pitch that gets me back down through the zone. With that, really staying back and getting out over that curveball, allowed me to get a feel for my fastball. That just shows Iannetta’s veteran experience.”
Karns didn’t quite make it a full five innings. After striking out the first two batters of the fifth, he was lifted with his pitch count at 81 (41 strikes).
“He was messed up mechanically, and it took him a while to get back in sync,” manager Scott Servais said. “It was two different pitchers out there, the first couple of innings from the last couple of innings. But to his credit, he got his pitches in today and he’ll keep heading in the right direction.”
Among the many things considered in making the decision on who will be the No. 5 starter — velocity, stuff, track record and spring performances — it’s also about seeing execution and if they can make in-game adjustments to get outs even when nothing is going right.
“It’s really important,” Servais said. “It’s a deciding factor in a lot of ways.”
Paxton wasn’t able to do it Thursday. Karns was able to push through Friday.
“Just make pitches, there are going to be days when you don’t have your best stuff and you just have to compete your way through it,” Iannetta said.