Jeff Karstens pitched three sharp and efficient innings Monday night in a rehab start for the Curve and said his right shoulder "felt the best it's felt in a long time."
"It's a step in the right direction for the first time out," said Karstens, who's been on the Pirates' disabled list since April 18 with shoulder inflammation.
Karstens was on a limit of 45 pitches or three innings, and he went that distance in only 37 pitches (25 strikes) against Harrisburg at Peoples Natural Gas Field. He allowed two singles - a seeing-eye grounder in the first and a bunt in the second - while striking out one with no walks, and he was helped out by a sliding catch in right field by Miles Durham in the second.
Karstens said he "probably didn't locate as well as I'd like to," but that didn't set him back against the Senators' aggressive hitters. He noted he works out during the offseason with Harrisburg pitcher Christian Garcia and said his buddy tipped him off about one thing.
"He kind of gave me a little idea that they were ready to play," Karstens said. "Any time you come out and face [hitters] in a rehab start, you know the guys are going to be a little more focused and really want to do well against you. So my main goal was just try and make some pitches early in the count and see where it took me."
Curve pitching coach Jeff Johnson was primarily focused on making sure Karstens was healthy.
"I saw that really well," Johnson said. "He was loose coming out, he was aggressive, so that tells you everything was good with him."
Curve catcher Tony Sanchez said it was easy to tell Karstens is a big league pitcher based on the stuff he threw Monday.
"What makes them so good is that consistency with fastball command," Sanchez said. "It's also what allows them to throw their offspeed for strikes. With him throwing all his pitches for strikes, no wonder he's where he is because he's so successful with all his pitches."
Karstens relied heavily on fastballs the first two innings, then the game plan called for him to concentrate on throwing more offspeed pitches in the third.
"Naturally in a game you kind of go fastball and establish it the first time through, but when you only have 45 pitches or three innings, you kind of have to try to get it working kind of quick," Karstens said.
Once he was finished with his game work, Karstens went to the bullpen and threw 10 more pitches. He then spent a few minutes signing autographs for fans.
Karstens said he probably could have pitched two more innings, but he acknowledged that wouldn't have been smart in his first rehab outing.
"The rehab process that we've gone through with the training staff, the coaches have done a really good job of coming up with a program that fits me well," he said. "I think it's helping me, and I'm just going to stay with it."
Karstens likely will need at least one more minor league rehab start before he's ready to rejoin the Pirates. If the plan is to keep him on a five-day rotation, he would be scheduled to pitch again Saturday, when the Curve are at Bowie and Triple-A Indianapolis will be at Louisville.
Johnson said he doesn't think Karstens' next outing will be with the Curve and added, "I would anticipate if he's coming back, we'd probably have a good idea already."
Once he is ready to return to the Pirates, the big question will be if Karstens will go into the rotation or the bullpen. The Bucs' rotation currently includes A.J. Burnett, James McDonald, Charlie Morton, Erik Bedard and Kevin Correia, so the club will have a tough decision on whether to bump one of those guys to the bullpen or have the versatile Karstens pitch in relief.
"I really have no idea," Karstens said of his big league role. "We have a lot of guys throwing really well, so obviously some decisions have to be made. I'm not in charge of that, so I just go about my business and see what happens."