DUNEDIN — Throughout his childhood, Rays right-hander Nathan Karns' home was a moving target.
Karns' father, David, was a Navy commander, and the family lived in five states before he turned 12. Born in Franklin, Pa., Karns adjusted quickly in military bases in Pensacola, Hawaii and New Orleans before settling in Dallas, loving how fighter jets often flew overhead.
"To be able to live across the country for several years at a time is very rewarding," he said. "I think it prepared me for the lifestyle I try to live, different states to call home."
Karns, 26, had to make another unexpected move last month, when he was acquired from the Nationals for catcher Jose Lobaton and two prospects the day before the Rays reported. His spring address might have changed from Viera to Port Charlotte, but his goal remained the same: crack a big-league rotation.
And manager Joe Maddon said Wednesday that Karns is still in the mix for the fifth starter's spot, along with Jake Odorizzi, Erik Bedard and Cesar Ramos.
"He's a very confident young man," Maddon said. "He knows he's good, and I kind of like that. He's competing for a job, and he made no bones about that in the beginning. He's interesting, and a lot of it has to do with his self-confidence."
Karns backed it up on the mound Wednesday, throwing 3⅓ scoreless innings against a Blue Jays lineup that included Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion. The 6-foot-3, 230-pounder scattered three hits in a 46-pitch outing. He hit 92-94 mph with his fastball and struck out Colby Rasmus with a nasty curveball.
"Made me look stupid," Rasmus said, "so I guess that's good."
Karns flashed potential in the lower minors, going 11-4, 2.17 at two Class A stops in 2012 and 10-6, 3.26 at Double-A Harrisburg last year before making three starts with the Nationals (0-1, 7.50). The Rays love his mound presence and the downward angle on his pitches (fastball, curveball, sinker, changeup), believing he has the strength and size to grow into a 200-inning type starter.
Whether Karns is ready for the rotation now, he said, is up to the Rays to decide. "I don't know who's in the running still, they said there are four names," he said. "I'm going to focus on what I can control and let everybody else worry about that."
Karns gained plenty of perspective in his difficult journey. He transferred from North Carolina State to Texas Tech after his freshman season to be closer to home and help his mother, Tambra, who battled cancer and a debilitating stroke.
"She's good now, but it was a bad time in her life," Karns said. "She's a tough woman that keeps on trucking."
Karns showed resilience, too, going through a grueling rehab after shoulder surgery in 2010 to repair a torn labrum. A 12th-round pick in 2009, Karns said it was tough to watch others get promoted while he was "still in the starting gate," as he barely pitched the next two years.
"That really built an understanding of how important a second chance really is," Karns said. "And it showed how much this game meant to me."
He bounced back in a big way, getting named Nationals minor-league pitcher of the year in 2012, his first full pro season, and turning into the touted prospect the Rays coveted.
"I started two years behind everyone," he said. "So to be where I am today is just mind-blowing, to be honest with you."
Joe Smith can be reached at [email protected]bay.com. Follow him on Twitter @TBTimes_JSmith.