FORT MYERS, FLA. — Nate Karns was only really referring to himself when downplaying what a Monday matinee against the Minnesota Twins, the first road game of the Grapefruit League season for the Orioles, meant in the context of his path to pitching in a game that matters.
The same could be said, however, for the pitchers who followed him — Luis Ortiz and Hunter Harvey — in the Orioles’ 7-1 loss to the Twins at Hammond Stadium on Monday, the team's first defeat of the spring. Each had their 2018 season cut short by injuries, and each valued the chance to just pitch in a competitive situation Monday.
"When I toe the rubber in a regular-season game, then I can say that's a milestone," Karns said. "But this is just one step in that direction, and we're not quite there yet. We're going to keep working."
“I checked on how they're feeling, and they're feeling great after their outing,” manager Brandon Hyde said. “I just think they were both so excited to get out there, the adrenaline was at a high. They hadn't been out and pitched in a competitive situation like that in a long time. I think they're just super excited. Obviously, the results aren't probably what they wanted, but we're just happy to get them out there, and they both showed really good stuff.”
Karns, the sole free agent the Orioles signed to a major league contract this winter, missed part of 2017 after thoracic outlet surgery in his shoulder area and didn't make it through spring training in 2018 with the Kansas City Royals after elbow soreness. On Monday, he was the first of a trio of Orioles pitchers for whom this listless game served as a chance to start anew.
It had been a year since Karns faced a team in an opposing uniform, and he allows he "may not have gotten the results that I wanted" after allowing three runs (two earned) on four hits with two walks and two strikeouts. An error to open the second inning by third baseman Renato Núñez didn’t help matters.
But with his fastball in the 91-93 mph range and a handful of swinging strikes on his curveball, Karns said he felt like himself out there.
"I threw everything — changeup, curveball, fastball, two-seams," he said. "I threw it all. At times they were good, at times they weren't but it was the first outing of camp, so I'm not taking too much out of everything. Things I feel like I can work on between starts."
In an era when teams accentuate strengths and urge pitchers to exploit them, the Twins were right to expect plenty of Karns' curveball, and it showed flashes of the pitch that had a 48.3 percent whiff rate the last time he was in the majors. That pitch, and his changeup, are promising.
There was far less to go off for Twins hitters against Ortiz and Harvey, with Ortiz's two outings in the majors last year the only time either has pitched at the highest level. Ortiz, who came over from the Milwaukee Brewers in the July 31 trade of Jonathan Schoop, suffered a hamstring injury in his first start at Camden Yards and had what new manager Brandon Hyde called a "wake-up call" about his conditioning in the process.
He came in lighter this camp and was consistently around 95-96 mph with his fastball, even as he allowed a pair of runs on three hits with a strikeout. He topped out at 94 mph in the major leagues last September.
“Probably a little bit nervous, high-adrenaline, throwing in the mid-90s, which was great,” Hyde said. “He's got a great arm, so the next couple times out, let him kind of settle in a little bit facing opposing lineups, and we'll evaluate from there.”
But the biggest fastballs of the day belonged to Harvey, who hadn't pitched since June 2 after a shoulder injury and forearm soreness at Double-A Bowie. His first pitch was 96 mph, his last 97.8 mph for a strikeout. In between, he allowed a double and a home run, but showed the kind of arm that was worth a first-round draft pick in 2013, before the injuries set in. He said having one inning of work scheduled, plus the adrenaline of not pitching in so long, might have contributed to the velocity, but that wasn’t the goal.
“My body felt good, arm felt good,” Harvey said. “Could be better, but I think it was OK for the first time out. … First time, really, just to get off the field is the main thing. Get out here, I wanted to feel good. The ball felt like it was coming out good in the bullpen and everything felt good, so it was a good day."
“I was really impressed,” Hyde said. “After the homer, Hunter, the next pitch, 97 [mph] on the plate. Was really, really aggressive. Just too pumped up, I think. Came out of his delivery a couple times because he was so excited to be out there, but punching a guy out at 98 to end the inning, fantastic arm, and great stuff. … That was free and easy. It's an effortless, mid-to-upper 90s fastball. He was just overthrowing his offspeed stuff and getting in hitters counts and they were sitting heater on him. But when he starts commanding those secondary pitches, he's going to be really tough.”
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Miguel Castro, Donnie Hart, and Josh Lucas each followed with scoreless relief innings for the Orioles, and Eric Young Jr. homered in the second inning for their only run.