DUNEDIN — In his first start of the spring, Rays rookie Nathan Karns took an impressive step toward winning the race as Tampa Bay’s No. 5 starter.
Acquired from the Nationals a month ago in a trade involving C Jose Lobaton, the 26-year-old right-hander yielded three singles and no runs before departing with one out in the fourth inning of Wednesday’s 5-4 Grapefruit League victory against the Blue Jays.
“It was nice to be out there, getting a feel for everything again and getting stretched out,’’ said Karns, who had pitched three scoreless innings in two relief appearances this spring. “I’m happy I was able to keep the team in the game and throw strikes.’’
Karns is in the mix for the final spot in the rotation, along with LH Erik Bedard, LH Cesar Ramos and RH Jake Odorizzi, who made four starts for Tampa Bay last year after arriving from Kansas City with Wil Myers in the James Shields deal.
“I love the sink and the breaking ball,’’ Rays manager Joe Maddon said in describing Karns’ repertoire. “He’s a confident young man with good stuff. He knows he’s good ... and I kind of like that.’’
Karns made three starts for the Nationals in 2013 but spent the bulk of his time with Double-A Harrisburg, where he went 10-6 with 155 strikeouts in 23 starts.
“I don’t know who’s still in the running,’’ Karns said regarding his competition. “I’m just going to worry about what I can control. I’m happy to put my work in and put up zeroes.’’
RHP Jeremy Hellickson threw Wednesday morning for the first time since elbow surgery on Jan. 28.
“It went really good,” he said. “Felt great the whole time, a very encouraging first step.”
He made 25 throws at 45-60 feet. He will do that every other day, with the distance and numbers of throws increasing until he’s ready to throw off a mound.
He is targeting June 1 as return date.
Jerry Sands prevented extra innings when he launched his third home run of the spring, a solo shot off Chad Jenkins that snapped a 4-4 tie with two out in the top of the ninth.
Another Tampa Bay outfielder trying to make the team, Jeremy Moore, led off the fourth with a mammoth drive over the batter’s eye in center field. The estimated 450-foot blast gave Moore three home runs with 18 days remaining before Opening Day.
“I think he hit that one to Toronto,’’ Karns quipped.
Ben Zobrist, hampered by a stiff neck in the past week, returned to the lineup Wednesday and struck out looking twice, sandwiched around a third-inning walk, while serving as DH.
“I feel good, I just need to get out there and get some a-bats to get my timing,’’ Zobrist said. “I want to hit the ground running come (season opener) March 31.’’
Zobrist, who turns 33 in May, started at four positions in 2013 — second base, shortstop, right field and left field — giving Maddon an array of options when filling out his lineup card.
“I’ll ask Ben how he feels about playing left field and he says, ‘I feel good about it,’ ” Maddon said. “It’s not like you’re putting a guy into a situation that you don’t think he’s fully into. Ben has been positively wide open on all these things.’’
With Myers, last year’s AL Rookie of the Year, playing with the Rays from the start in 2014, Zobrist and Maddon suggested Zobrist’s days in the outfield are likely to be reduced this season.
“I’m sure I’ll still move around a little bit,’’ Zobrist said.
Alex Cobb, Grant Balfour and Joel Peralta each threw for the Rays Wednesday in a minor-league game, with Cobb firing 46 strikes in 68 pitches. ...Josh Lueke yielded a two-run homerun to Edwin Encarnacion in the sixth as the Blue Jays scored four times to erase a 4-0 deficit. ...Sands, claimed off the Pirates in December, is hitting .450 this spring, with 22 total bases in 20 at-bats. ...The Rays have slugged 16 homers in 12 Grapefruit League games. ...Attendance at Charlotte Sports Park is up 15 percent over last season. ...LH Matt Moore is slated to start for Tampa Bay Thursday at home against Pittsburgh, with RH Chris Archer scheduled to open Friday against the Braves in Orlando.
Ira Kaufman, Roger Mooney