BRADENTON -- Consider Jeff Karstens the forgotten man of the Pittsburgh Pirates pitching staff.
His name has stayed out of the headlines while new acquisitions like A.J. Burnett and Erik Bedard and Charlie Mortons road back from hip surgery have garnered all the ink.
Smart money says few even know how Karstens got to Pittsburgh: Outfielder Jose Tabata was considered the prized catch when the Pirates made a deadline deal with the New York Yankees for a package that included Karstens in July 2008.
Karstens shrugs off such things, however.
If I fly under the radar, he said, I fly under the radar.
Such is the story of Karstens. He isnt overpowering. His stuff isnt filthy. He wont short out any radar guns.
But as he showed last year -- as well as Wednesday afternoon, when Karstens cruised through three innings against the Toronto Blue Jays during the Pirates 8-6 loss at McKechnie Field -- the righty has learned how to get guys out.
It just took him a little bit of time.
In the past, I had to talk myself into a lot of things, he said, to where now, I kind of believe in everything that I do. A lot of it was being young and wanting to stay as opposed to knowing you fit.
Karstens made his professional debut in 2003 with the Yankees short-season Single-A affiliate in Staten Island, N.Y. But last year was the first time Karstens, 29, spent an entire season at the big-league level. He responded by going 9-9 with a team-leading 3.38 ERA in 30 games, 26 starts, while walking 33 in 1621/3 innings.
He posted a 1.83 walks-per-nine-innings ratio, which was third-best in the National League behind Philadelphias Roy Halladay and Cliff Lee.
Hes frustrating, said Pirates infielder Casey McGehee, who faced Karstens while McGehee was with Milwaukee. Hell throw anything at any time. And then hell drop (his arm) down some, which puts a whole other wrinkle in the back of your mind to think about. You can tell hes got a pretty good idea what hes trying to do. It comes down to if he executes it.
When he makes his pitches, hes tough.
Karstens chalks it all up to believing in himself. Despite the lack of a pure swing-and-miss pitch -- he had just 96 strikeouts last year -- Karstens has developed the confidence to put the ball wherever he wants it, regardless of who he is facing.
Every time out, I felt I could beat whomever I was pitching against, he said. It didnt matter the team, the other pitcher. ... I felt like with the guys I had behind me and the game plan that I had in place, no matter who it was, I was going to have a chance.
Standing in the Pirates clubhouse Wednesday afternoon, Karstens acknowledged some regrets, that he didnt work as hard as he could have or should have when he was in his early 20s.
Rather than pout over what could have been, Karstens used that as fuel last season.
I want to tell myself when I was done playing baseball that I had fun, that I didnt put pressure on myself, he said, and I think thats something that Ive been able to carry on with me.
Karstens tapped into that mind set Wednesday, when he laughed off a base hit off the bat of Yunel Escobar.
Im laughing, but Im as competitive as anybody youll ever meet. My fiancée gets mad at me for it: You cant be competitive with me. I tell her, Its not you, its who I am, he said. But when Im on the mound, I try and laugh because I want my demeanor to be the same the entire time Im out there. ... I think of it as I laugh, I try and talk myself through it, and I know what I have to do to make my pitch now.
I think it just comes with a lot of time playing and becoming your own pitcher.
That pitcher was sharp Wednesday, when he needed 35 pitches to get through three scoreless, two-hit innings. Karstens struck out one and didnt issue a walk.
Hes worked extremely hard this winter, said manager Clint Hurdle. Right now, its very, very good command, which weve seen from him in the past.
Karstens role with the Pirates is a bit undefined, especially because Burnett is expected back in about three months after undergoing surgery to repair a fractured bone around his right eye.
But Karstens is prepared to keep himself in the conversation.
I dont believe anything was ever going to be given to me. I always had to work for everything Ive got, he said. And I want to work to keep what I have. ... Me as a person, Im very honest with myself and honest with everything. I know that they have a lot of talent here, but I also know that Im capable of being a major-league pitcher.