Karns makes quite an impression in first big league spring contest

VIERA, Fla. - If not for a dazzling defensive play from Mets outfield prospect Matt den Dekker, who scaled the center field wall at Tradition Field last night to bring in Anthony Rendon’s deep fly, Rendon would have had himself two straight games with a two-run homer.

The catch by den Dekker ended up as No. 3 on the top 10 plays on “SportsCenter” last night, and it limited Rendon to a 1-for-2 game.

“Who does that?” Rendon joked after the game. “It’s spring training!”

A couple of minutes later, right-hander Nathan Karns was talking to reporters about his impressive two-inning outing. The 25-year-old Karns was saying that he hoped some offseason conditioning work, which improved his lower-body strength, would give him a couple of extra ticks on the radar gun this season.

“Couple more ticks?” reliever Ryan Mattheus hollered from a nearby locker. “You wanna throw 105 (mph)?”

“Who doesn’t want to throw 105?” Karns responded with a smile.

Based on what we saw last night and what he exhibited in the minors last season, Karns’ stuff already seems pretty nasty as is, even without a possible boost in velocity.

In just his second pro season, Karns was named the Nationals’ minor league Pitcher of the Year in 2012 after going 11-4 with a 2.17 ERA between low Single-A Hagerstown and high Single-A Potomac.

Karns dominated the South Atlantic League in the first half of last season before getting a promotion to Potomac and finding nearly just as much success at the high-A level. He finished the year having allowed just two home runs in 116 innings, striking out 148 to 47 walks.

The impressive 2012 campaign was enough to get Karns added to the Nats’ 40-man roster and allow him a chance to participate in big league camp this spring. Last night, he not only got to appear in his first big league spring game, but he also faced a few legit major league hitters (David Wright, Ike Davis and Kirk Nieuwenhuis among them) as well as top Mets prospect Travis d’Arnaud.

“(I was) a little nervous at first. Not gonna lie,” Karns said. “Definitely excited to be out there. Something I’ve been looking forward to for a long time, and it was great to be out there. I felt comfortable after that first batter or two and then after that, it was just another game and just went at it that way.”

Karns struck out Davis, got Nieuwenhuis to fly out and struck out Mike Baxter and d’Arnaud. He got in quite a battle with Wright, a career .301 hitter in the bigs, getting ahead in the count only to see Wright foul off a few pitches and eventually single to right.

“He’s a veteran,” Karns said. “It’s his game, I’m new to it. I tried to earn my stripes a little bit and battle, but he won this battle. Hopefully I can see him further down the road.”

Manager Davey Johnson noticed that Karns was a bit too amped, especially early in his outing, and he was overthrowing his curveball as a result. Karns also noted that he didn’t have a good feel for his changeup, but he showed good command with his two- and four-seam fastballs, which was his strength last season. Those pitches sat in the 93-95 mph range last night.

Knowing how good a chance this is to make a positive impression on Johnson and others in the Nationals organization, Karns isn’t easing into spring. He’s coming out guns blazing, hoping he can turn some heads.

“I approach it the same way (as any other outing). I just want to be competitive,” Karns said. “I don’t have a spot on the team, so I’m fighting for something. If it doesn’t work out, I’ve got to go back to the minors and try and grind my way back up. So definitely going to take that approach for the rest of my career. Every time out there, it’s a game and I’m going to compete to win.”

Karns is likely ticketed for the rotation at Double-A Harrisburg to start the season, but while he’s in big league camp, he’s making sure to keep his eyes open and take in as much information as he can. Karns doesn’t say much during clubhouse time, and he usually sticks to the area around his locker, neighboring other minor leaguers and non-roster invitees. But he watches how Stephen Strasburg, Jordan Zimmermann and others attack their mound work, trying to pull tips that can help him during his own throwing sessions.

“It’s a lot to take in every day,” Karns said. “I sit there and just kind of observe all the guys who’ve established themselves and watch how they go about their business and prepare their body and mental approach. Hopefully it’ll rub off on me after camp and maybe I’ll take it on with me during the season.”

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