In the moments before his debut outing with the Royals, Nathan Karns sought to calm his nerves. His adrenalin pumped during a pregame bullpen session. His body tensed with anxious energy. He carried the mood to the mound on Wednesday afternoon at Surprise Stadium.
“There’s a lot of reasons I could have been amped up,” Karns said.
A pitcher cannot win a job on one spring training outing. But Nathan Karns offered up a strong first impression, posting a tidy, workmanlike performance against an undermanned version of the defending World Series champion Chicago Cubs.
He breezed through two perfect innings, striking out three hitters while throwing just 19 pitches. The performance was so efficient that he required an additional bullpen session to increase his pitch count to 30 after finishing his allotted two innings. Yet for Karns, the most positive step came amid the excitement of the first inning.
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“I was able to dial it back, stay within myself and make quality pitches,” Karns said. “So to be at this point in spring and kind of right the ship, (that) was what I take as a progressive step.”
The start came in a 7-3 loss to the Cubs, whose fan base invaded Surprise Stadium on a warm March afternoon. The result of the game paled in meaning to the first two innings. The performance of Karns provided the first data point in the competition for the final slot in the Royals’ starting rotation. The battle for the vacant fifth starter spot remains one of the most interesting story lines of this camp.
Acquired from the Seattle Mariners in an offseason trade for outfielder Jarrod Dyson, Karns, 29, is competing with left-hander Travis Wood and right-hander Chris Young. Wood, 30, and Young, 37, are set to pitch Thursday in Surprise, and the competition will likely continue for weeks. But Karns was up first — even if he did not seem overly concerned with his immediate results.
“I got to go out there and compete,” Karns said. “I can’t worry about what the guys next to me are doing. I need to focus on what I need to do. But at the same time, the competition is going to bring the best out of everyone. If you’re a competitor, you embrace it.”
For Karns, the concept of competition is no foreign idea. In four major-league seasons, he has played for three organizations. In that sense, he is comfortable with first impressions. As he enters his fifth spring, he is confident he can prove himself with his fourth club.
“Every camp I’ve been in,” Karns said. “I’ve been in competition for a roster spot.”
In 2015, that competition came with the Tampa Bay Rays. Karns won a rotation spot and posted a 3.67 ERA in 147 innings across 27 appearances, including 26 starts. But the offseason brought a trade to the Seattle Mariners, and he struggled in his only season in the Pacific Northwest. He logged a 5.15 ERA in 94 1/3 innings and was banished to the bullpen in midseason. He missed most of the second half of the year because of a back injury.
The Royals, though, saw promise in his power stuff. And as the offseason progressed, a possible trade idea surfaced. The Mariners sought more athleticism in their outfield. The Royals wanted controllable assets for the future. The needs of each club generated a deal in early January. The Royals sent Dyson, a free agent after 2017, to Seattle in exchange for Karns, who is under club control through 2020.
In the early weeks of camp, the Royals remain pleased with the acquisition.
“You get into those situations where you got a guy you’re really emotionally tied to, like Dyson,” Royals manager Ned Yost said. “And then you have to end up trading him. I’ve been really pleased with what we got back. I’ve been really pleased with his (Karns’) stuff.”
Armed with a fastball in the low to mid 90s and a strong curveball, Karns can resemble his new teammate Ian Kennedy in mechanics and style. And after a chaotic beginning to his career, Karns would also welcome’s Kennedy’s results and longevity.
For the moment, the process includes working on a change-up with pitching coach Dave Eiland. It’s a pitch, Karns said, that he has attempted to master before. The main tinkering has come in the last couple of years.
“I think this camp I’ve really just doubled down on it (and) committed to it,” Karns said. “I have a pretty good feel for it right now, and I think that’s something that Dave and I are really going to push at this camp.”
If Karns can lock down the final rotation spot, that would push Wood and Young to the bullpen. But Karns could draw heavy competition from Wood, a crafty and respected left-hander who spent the 2016 season in the Cubs bullpen after years of starting in Cincinnati and Chicago.
For now, the competition remains open. For Karns, it’s a familiar position.
“For me,” he said, “it’s just another camp.”