The Bulls are back in town. And in a way, so is Nathan Karns.
Karns, a 6-foot-3, 230-pound right-hander, will take the mound at Durham Bulls Athletic Park when the reigning Governors’ Cup champion Bulls open their Class AAA International League season at 6:05 p.m. Thursday against the Gwinnett Braves.
Less than two months ago, Karns wasn’t even part of the Tampa Bay Rays organization. But the Washington Nationals gave up their ninth-best prospect Feb. 13 to obtain backup catcher Jose Lobaton and two prospects from the Rays’ advanced Class A team in Port Charlotte, Fla.
“To be honest, I didn’t know about it until about dinner time, 12 hours before it went down,” said Karns, who saw a rumor on the Internet and called his agent. “I went in the next day, which was report day, and a bunch of guys were already there. When we went back to the locker room, the clubby told me (Nationals general manager Mike) Rizzo wanted to meet with me.”
With former Durham Bulls pitcher Jeremy Hellickson sidelined for the first six to eight weeks of the season after elbow surgery, the Rays were looking for a fifth starter. Karns and major league veteran Erik Bedard, who also joins the Bulls out of spring training, were in the mix before rookie Jake Odorizzi won the job.
Karns is looking at what transpired in a positive light.
“At first I thought the trade was for Lobaton straight up,” he said. “Then I heard three for one. To hear that, it’s definitely big … If you didn’t know where you stood, that tells you.”
Karns compiled a 10-6 record with a 3.26 ERA for Class AA Harrisburg last season, one year after he was Washington’s minor league pitcher of the year with a combined 11-4 mark and 2.17 ERA for Class A Hagerstown and Potomac. A power pitcher who registers in the mid-90s on the radar gun, Karns said he likes to challenge hitters. In Class AA he struck out 155 in 132 2/3 innings, using a four-seam and two-seam fastball, curve and change-up.
This won’t be Karns’ first trip to the Triangle, however. He was a freshman at N.C. State for the 2006-07 academic year before transferring back home to Texas Tech for family reasons.
“I never had the opportunity to play in Triple-A with the Nationals,” he said. “I’m taking it as a promotion. I’m excited to play against my former team, and where I went to school. I drove around the old campus (Tuesday) and saw my old apartment.
“I’ve never been an opening-day starter in my professional career. It’s very exciting, and I want to make the most of it.”
Manager Charlie Montoyo said Karns will head a rotation that includes Enny Romero, Matt Andriese, Mike Montgomery and Bedard, with Andriese the only other right-hander among the group. Kirby Yates, who had 20 saves for Durham last year, is the likely closer in a solid bullpen.
Montoyo, who is highly regarded as a player’s manager, said roles will change often because player development is paramount, even at the Class AAA level. “I don’t even know who will start tomorrow,” he told the media Wednesday, indicating his lineup, like the construction still going on as part of renovations at Durham Bulls Athletic Park, was a work in progress.
For example, Montoyo’s projected starting shortstop, Hak-Ju Lee of South Korea, won’t be available until the end of April. He pulled a hamstring during spring training and still is in Florida. He missed most of the 2013 season because of a torn knee ligament after a hot start that saw him hit .422 in 15 games.
Montoyo said he likes the makeup of his team, which includes 14 players who spent at least part of last year in Durham, when the Bulls won the IL title and played for the Triple-A national championship.
One of those players returning for the Bulls is infielder Vince Belnome, who hit .300 last year while dividing time between first, second and third base.
“If you’re going to play Triple-A baseball, you might as well play here,” Belnome said. “Great city, great stadium, great fan support.
“On certain nights, when you see (former Bull) Crash Davis and those guys, you feel like, ‘Wow, this is a big league Triple-A.’ ”