Karns benefits from rare offensive display
Adam LaRoche could tell Nathan Karns was a tad nervous to make his big-league debut when he noticed the right-hander's jersey was soaking wet. This was while Karns was still in the dugout, having yet to face his first major-league batter.
"Like he walked through the shower before he even took the mound," LaRoche said. "That was fun. I'm sure his world was spinning real fast."
Knowing their rookie starter — who only 24 hours earlier was preparing to face the Class AA Akron Aeros — was in a bit of a fog, the Nationals came up with the best possible plan to ease a young pitcher through that pressure situation: They went out and scored a ton of runs.
Behind four homers — two by LaRoche, plus back-to-back shots by struggling Tyler Moore and Roger Bernadina — the Nationals pounded the Orioles and rookie Kevin Gausman into submission, cruising to a 9-3 victory before a boisterous crowd of 35,664 that waited out an 81-minute rain delay to see the two promising right-handers go head-to-head.
It was the kind of offensive explosion manager Davey Johnson has been seeking all season but has rarely received, especially with a lineup decimated by injuries. But the contributions turned in Tuesday night from Moore and Bernadina, in particular, helped soften the blow the Nationals have experienced with Bryce Harper, Jayson Werth, Danny Espinosa and Wilson Ramos all sidelined.
"Those guys are very capable, and seeing them come around, that takes the pressure off a lot of guys," Johnson said of Moore and Bernadina. "I mean, the lineup, one-fourth of it has been dormant. So it was huge today."
The offensive fireworks were especially beneficial to Karns, who impressed everyone with his stuff and his moxie but nonetheless lasted only 4 1/3 innings and thus didn't qualify for the win. (That went to Zach Duke, who recorded five outs in relief.)
Summoned from Harrisburg at the last minute when Ross Detwiler couldn't make his scheduled start due to a lingering oblique strain, Karns found himself staring down one of the majors' most potent lineups. And, for the most part, he was successful, retiring the first four Orioles he faced and then limited the damage the rest of his evening.
Chris Davis and J.J. Hardy each blasted solo homers in the fourth, and Karns got into trouble when he issued back-to-back walks in the fifth, but he still departed with head held high, having earned the admiration of his teammates and manager.
"He should be proud of what he did," Johnson said. "That's a hot-hitting ballclub."
On this night, the Nationals were ever hotter. LaRoche got things started with a three-run homer in the bottom of the first. Moore and Bernadina then went back-to-back in the fourth off Gausman, the highly touted flamethrower who wound up allowing seven runs and eight hits and saw his ERA rise to 11.00 after two big-league starts.
The Moore and Bernadina homers might have elicited the biggest roars from the crowd, which understood each player's plight well. Stuck on the bench to begin the season, then thrust into the lineup more recently due to injuries, each has struggled mightily to find a groove at the plate.
Add up their batting averages entering this game, and you only got .273. Add up their slugging percentages and you only got .420. Respectable totals for one player, disastrous for two.
It's been tough for both Moore and Bernadina to keep their heads up throughout their respective slumps, but both insisted they've had to do it.
"Sure, but I've been down before in the minor leagues and last year," Moore said. "You've got to fight back, keep going with it and keep moving forward."
"I'm a confident guy," Bernadina said. "Davey gave me lately some more ABs so I can get in. It was hard in the beginning, but it's a long season and you've got to keep fighting. You never know when you'll find your groove again."
By night's end, LaRoche had trumped everyone else, blasting his second homer of the game to turn this one into a rout. After a horrid April that included an 0-for-26, 13-strikeout slump, the veteran first baseman is hitting .341 with seven homers and 19 RBI in May.
"I'm getting there," LaRoche said. "I'm definitely way more comfortable than I was early on."
Also more comfortable than he was 24 hours earlier: Karns, who may not remember much from his big-league debut but now knows he'll get another opportunity to soak it all in. With Detwiler still bothered by the oblique injury and the Nationals not wanting to risk it, Johnson announced the rookie will stay with the club and start again Sunday in Atlanta against the first-place Braves.
"I really hope everything goes smoothly," Karns said. "But if not, just a chance to have a second start is more than a lot of people can ask for. I'm pretty excited about that."