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Right-hander Nate Karns was 4-2 with a 4.60 ERA at Class AA Harrisburg.
With their Class AAA Syracuse rotation struggling mightily through the season's first two months, the Nationals elected to dip down into the ranks at Class AA Harrisburg, plucking the 25-year-old Karns and throwing him to the wolves tonight in Washington.
Not that Karns hadn't earned the opportunity. This is, after all, the organization's reigning pitcher of the year and the fifth-rated prospect in the entire system entering 2013 (according to Baseball America). He also impressed this spring in his first big-league camp, allowing one earned run in 3 2/3 innings of relief against the Mets and Cardinals.
"I caught him a couple of times, and he's got a good arm," catcher Kurt Suzuki said. "Obviously, spring training is really early, and he was working on some things. But he's got a big-time arm, that's for sure."
The 6-foot-3, 230 pounder features a mid-90s fastball, plus a sharp breaking ball. He also doesn't seem to lack for confidence, unfazed to have faced big-league hitters during spring training.
Karns grew up in Arlington, Texas, and spent three years pitching at Texas Tech before the Nationals lured him to sign a professional contract after selecting him in the 12th round of the 2009 draft. His minor-league career got off to a rough start — a shoulder injury ultimately required labrum surgery and prevented him from debuting until mid-2011 — but he returned strong last season and went a combined 11-4 with a 2.17 ERA between both levels of A-ball.
Promoted to Class AA to begin this season, Karns was walloped in his first outing but posted a 3.48 ERA over his last eight games. Now he'll get a chance not only to start for the Nationals but against another top prospect who opened this season in the Eastern League: Baltimore's Kevin Gausman, who made his ballyhooed debut Thursday in Toronto.
The two flamethrowers nearly went head-to-head one month ago but missed each other by one day. Karns held Bowie to one earned run over 5 2/3 innings on April 27; the next day, Gausman limited Harrisburg to one earned runs over 7 2/3 innings.
Though he's got a calm exterior that suggests he won't be intimidated against major-league hitters, Karns surely will have a few butterflies in his stomach when he takes the mound shortly after 7 p.m. It'll be up to his teammates and pitching coach Steve McCatty to keep him composed.
"You try to make him as comfortable as possible," Suzuki said. "We'll obviously go over scouting reports with Cat before the game. But when you go out there, it's all about feel. You can do all the scouting reports that you want, but you've got to pitch to your strengths, and that's the bottom line. Try to keep him calm. He'll be a little amped up out there. It's his first start, he's going to be nervous. But the more fun he has, I think the better he will be."
Karns will become the fourth member of the Nationals' 2009 draft class to reach the majors, joining Stephen Strasburg, Drew Storen and the just-promoted Jeff Kobernus. His stint may not last long, with Ross Detwiler expected to return from the disabled list in time to start Sunday at Atlanta.
Whether he makes one appearance or sticks around, Karns' debut tonight could serve as a jolt of energy to a Nationals club that seems like it needs a bit of a jolt after an inconsistent start to the season.
"Our farm system, that's one of the reasons why we've been so good over the past two years," third baseman Ryan Zimmerman said. "We have guys that can come up and make starts, guys that continually come through that pipeline and help us continue to get better at this level. I'm excited to see him pitch."