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Karns returns in opener role as O's cool Yanks

Right-hander works 2 shutout innings in first outing since May 2017
@JoeTrezz
March 30, 2019

NEW YORK -- Back on the mound in a Major League ballpark for the first time in nearly two years, Nate Karns looked around to see the bases full, Yankee Stadium clogged with 42,203 fans clamoring for that to change. This was Saturday afternoon, more than 22 months since Karns

NEW YORK -- Back on the mound in a Major League ballpark for the first time in nearly two years, Nate Karns looked around to see the bases full, Yankee Stadium clogged with 42,203 fans clamoring for that to change. This was Saturday afternoon, more than 22 months since Karns last pitched in a big league game, an array of arm injuries separating the right-hander from that last appearance.

"I was kind of like, 'What did I get myself into?'" Karns said. "That's not the way I drew it up in my head."

That Karns was able to look back on the situation lightheartedly speaks to how he was able to escape the jam, and the perseverance that put him there in the first place. By inducing a inning-ending double play from Miguel Andujar, Karns completed the first of two scoreless innings to begin the Orioles' 5-3 win over the Yankees. Their first win of the season also marked his first big league action since May 2017.

"You just want to put yourself back into that position. I'm very grateful to be in this opportunity and you take it one pitch at a time," Karns said. "I was proud of what I was able to accomplish during those two years injured. It's not done yet."

The Orioles' offense was led by catcher Jesús Sucre, who racked up three hits and three RBIs. Left-hander James Paxton was solid in his Yankees debut, striking out five over 5 2/3 innings, but he surrendered two runs (one earned) to take the loss.

When Alex Cobb hit the injured list the day the Orioles were set to break camp, the club knew it would need to get creative on the pitching side almost immediately. To do so, the O's turned to Karns, tabbing him as their first experimental opener, a strategy they plan to utilize at least once more before Cobb rejoins the rotation next week. Karns long profiled as a potential candidate, given his history as a starter. Signed as a free agent this offseason, Karns had made 54 of his 63 previous career appearances as a member of a rotation, starting as many as 26 games for the Rays in 2015. But he settled into a bullpen role this spring mainly out of caution, the Orioles hesitant to rush to stretch him out given his previous injuries.

"I'm looking forward to anytime I can take the mound and be a part of a win," Karns said. "Whatever it is, whatever is next for me, I'm up for it."

That's music to the ears of the Orioles, who've preached flexibility on the pitching side rather than assign many defined roles. During their planned bullpen game Saturday, they clumped four of their toughest righties together in an effort to combat New York's right-handed-heavy lineup, to great effect. Jimmy Yacabonis, Miguel Castro and Mychal Givens combined to log six innings after Karns, handing the ball to Richard Bleier in the ninth with a four-run lead. After Bleier allowed a homer to Troy Tulowitzki and two more to reach, Orioles skipper Brandon Hyde summoned Mike Wright -- who started all spring and is a candidate to make starts somewhere down the line. Wright retired Giancarlo Stanton and Andujar to notch his first career save.

"I want to show our guys confidence," Hyde said. "This is such a hard game, there is so much adversity. It's challenging. To show guys confidence, put them in tough spots, that's how guys get better. I'm going to continue to see how they react."

That could mean a variety of future situations for Karns, the club's ostensible No. 4 starter before sliding naturally into what, at this point, figures to be a varied role.

Karns continued to start while injuries -- thoracic outlet syndrome in 2017 -- limited his ability to stay on the field, but his swing-and-miss stuff has long profiled for shorter stints. The Royals hoped to make Karns their closer, for example, last spring before elbow issues derailed that plan. He threw 33 pitches across his two innings Saturday, walking three, striking out one and ultimately keeping New York off the scoreboard.

"It was pretty big for me … like I said, it had been two years," Karns said. "I wouldn't say nerves, but I had a lot of adrenaline for sure. When you're not throwing strikes, you say, 'I have to pull something out of my hat here.' So you keep battling and pull it out for the boys."

Joe Trezza covers the Orioles for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter at @JoeTrezz.