The Tampa Bay Rays pride themselves on being an organization that can make any pitcher better. Clearly, this was the case last night in the Rogers Centre, as Nate Karns pitched a gem against J.A. Happ of the Toronto Blue Jays.
Sep 12, 2014; Toronto, Ontario, CAN; Tampa Bay Rays pitcher Nate Karns (51) throws against the Toronto Blue Jays in the first inning at Rogers Centre. Mandatory Credit: John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports
Karns made his 2014 debut for the Rays after pitching in 27 games for the Durham Bulls in the Triple-A’s International League. The righty from Pennsylvania was 9-9, with a 5.08 ERA. Karns could not stop teams hitting him around the ballpark, giving up 142 hits in 145.1 innings. With these numbers, the Blue Jays should have been licking their chops to get a hold of this ‘meat’.
At least it seemed that way in the bottom of the first inning. Karns did everything but hit the strikezone. Jose Reyes walked on five pitches, including four four-seam fastballs. Next, Jose Bautista was hit by a pitch, making it seem like the Blue Jays were primed for a big inning early. Karns continued only throwing his four-seamer to Edwin Encarnacion, which looked pretty terrible to chase. Encarnacion must have felt differently, as he hit a pitch nowhere close to the strikezone for a double play.
With Bautista making his way to second base and Adam Lind walking on a steady diet of awful-looking fastballs, Dioner Navarro grounded out to Rays first baseman James Loney by hitting a knuckle curve that had no business being swung at. Two ill-timed swings cost the Blue Jays a chance to open the scoring.
The Rays did not make the same mistake.
In the top of the third inning, Happ was still establishing his own fastball that was dominating the zone and struck out four Rays batters. Ryan Hanigan must have guessed that he would receive the same treatment and decided to be the aggressor. Hanigan smacked the first pitch, another fastball, over the left field fence to take the lead.
Unfortunately for the Blue Jays, that would be all the runs the Rays would need. Karns settled down and pitched the game of his life after that first inning. He pitched 7.0 innings, giving up only two hits and two walks. Karns threw 114 pitches, 72 were strikes, and struck out eight Blue Jays bombers. Grant Balfour came in for his twelve save of the season. The Blue Jays only had two hits for the night, going 0-3 with runners in scoring position and left five runners on base.
Both shortstops exchanged fielding errors, as Yunel Escobar and Reyes made laughable mistakes on routine plays. Aaron Sanchez, who came in to relieve Happ let a pickoff throw get away from him for the second error for the Blue Jays.
Looking at Happ’s numbers, you would swear that he had an excellent game, as long as you didn’t look at the score. Happ pitched almost identical numbers to Karns, throwing 7.0 innings, giving up only two hits and a walk. He struck out seven batters, but suffered a home run that became the ultimate decider.
Blue Jays manager, John Gibbons said in the post-game press conference, “Happ’s a good competitor…He definitely pitched good enough to win tonight.” Gibbons praised Karns for settling down after the first inning, stating, “If you love good pitching, you saw it.”
It could have been a case of going cold after being so hot against the Chicago Cubs. It could have been a supernatural experience, as Karns was pitching in the same spot in the rotation as David Price did when he used to rip pitches past the Blue Jays for the Rays. It could have been the Blue Jays being distracted by finding themselves deep in a wildcard race when so many had said it was over a month ago. Whatever the case, the Blue Jays took the foot off of the gas and let their batting engines go cold.