For Karns, a big test on a big stage

If you’re a fan of watching talented, young pitchers test themselves against some of the best hitters in baseball - and who isn’t, really - you might want to clear your schedule around 7:05 p.m. tonight.

Tonight’s Orioles-Nationals game will give us a battle of two hard-throwing, fresh-faced right-handers who probably have trouble convincing bartenders that their IDs are legitimate and weren’t crafted by some kid in his basement.

Nathan Karns, 25, will be making his major league debut for the Nationals, while Kevin Gausman, 22, is the experienced veteran of the two young starters. Gausman will get the ball for the Orioles for the second time in his big league career.

We could’ve been watching these two square off in the Eastern League a week ago. Now they’ll be facing each other on the game’s biggest stage.

Combined, Karns and Gausman have made 18 starts above high Single-A.

Think about that for a moment. Both of these guys have spent less than two months at the Double-A level, and now they’ll be duking it out in the big leagues.

Gausman is the more highly regarded of the two guys going tonight. He’s a former No. 4 overall pick viewed as one of the top young arms in the game, but scouts like what Karns brings to the table, as well. A 12th-round pick out of Texas Tech back in 2009, Karns received a $225,000 signing bonus from the Nationals, well above slot value.

Once he was fully recovered from a 2010 surgical procedure on his shoulder, Karns moved quickly, making 13 starts between two low levels of the Nats’ system in 2011 and then splitting 2012 between low Single-A Hagerstown and high Single-A Potomac. After nine starts at Double-A Harrisburg this season, he’ll stroll into Nationals Park today for his first big league start.

Often, the toughest task for a young starting pitcher making his major league debut is controlling his emotions. Finding a way to locate pitches despite all the extra adrenaline one has while standing on a mound in front of tens of thousands of people and hundreds of thousands more watching at home is no easy task.

Karns will have to deal with that, for sure. But his biggest test tonight won’t be managing that adrenaline. The young right-hander will have to navigate through an Orioles lineup that has made many proven big league starters want to sprint off the mound and seek refuge in the clubhouse.

The O’s have scored the third-most runs in the big leagues this season, averaging nearly 5.1 runs per contest. As a team, they’re hitting .275 (second-best in the majors) slugging a ridiculous .459 (tops in the bigs) and have crushed a major league-best 69 home runs.

If you’re making your major league debut, you’d probably prefer not to do it against a team with a .790 OPS. Where are the Marlins when you need them?

Karns will need to use his mid-90s fastball to get ahead in counts tonight. He’ll need to mix in his offspeed stuff, making sure not to leave it up in the zone. He’ll need to work both sides of the plate, keeping the Orioles honest by not being afraid to come inside.

This will be quite a test for a guy whose most recent opponent was the Erie Seawolves, but you sometimes learn the most about a player when he’s thrown right into the fire. We’ll see how Karns fares against a red-hot Orioles team tonight.

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