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Washington Nationals news & notes: Nats drop opener with Cubs; MacKenzie Gore; foul balls + more...

Notes and quotes from last night’s series opener with the Cubs in Nationals Park...

FRONT PAGE - Gore vs Cubs:

MacKenzie Gore, 24, allowed a run, four hits, and two walks, striking out 10 of the 25 batters he faced in a dominant, 101-pitch start against the New York Mets in Citi Field, generating 19 swinging strikes on the night, 12 of them with his fastball, four with his curve, and three with his slider, and picking up 17 called strikes, nine with his fastball, and eight with his curveball.

“When you’re pounding the zone with your fastball,” manager Davey Martinez said after Washington’s win over their NL East rivals in that game, “… and then you can drop a curveball in there, it helps. If you’ve got to rely on your secondary pitches all the time it would be a different at-bat for those hitters. I think the key today was strike one, throwing his fastball, and using his breaking balls when he needed to.”

“They were in the zone,” Gore said of his heater and curve really working off one another.

“Fastball was good tonight. We were throwing pretty hard. We were just in the zone with everything, and it was good.”

And his season-high 10 Ks?

“Double-digit strikeouts, they happen or they don’t,” Gore said. “But my stuff is good right now. If I get ahead of guys, I can — I’m capable of striking guys out.”

The outing left the left-hander with a 3.00 ERA, a 3.53 FIP, 16 walks (5.33 BB/9), 35 Ks (11.67 K/9), and a .200/.315/.284 line against in 27 IP to start the season.

His ERA was up to 3.54 after the Cubs scored two runs on Gore in the opening frame of last night’s game, with Cody Bellinger singling with two out, stealing second, and coming in on Seiya Suzuki’s RBI single, 1-0, before Suzuki took third on an errant throw on a pick attempt, and scored on Trey Mancini’s RBI double, 2-0.

Gore threw 32 pitches in the first, and 11 in a 1-2-3 second, but after a 30-pitch third inning, in which he worked around a one-out double and two-out walk, he was up to 73 pitches on the night. A quick, 13-pitch fourth left him at just 86 total.

He returned to the mound in the fifth and gave up a leadoff single by Nico Hoerner and a two-run home run to left field by Dansby Swanson (on a straight-up, middle-middle, 95 MPH, 1-0 fastball) as the Cubs jumped out to a 4-1 lead. A walk to Bellinger, on his 102nd overall pitch ended Gore’s outing...

MacKenzie Gore’s Line: 4.0 IP, 7 H, 4 R, 4 ER, 2 BB, 4 Ks, 1 HR, 102 P, 66 S, 7/0 GO/FO.

Gore finished the night with 11 swinging strikes, six on his fastball, which he threw 61% of the time, and he got 12 called strikes, seven with his four-seamer, and the Cubs’ hitters in the end fouled off 28 of his 102 pitches, leading to his early exit from what ended up a 5-1 loss.

“A lot of foul balls,” Martinez said in assessing Gore’s outing overall.

“They worked good counts, they didn’t chase,” he added, “... and that was the whole night with their at-bats. When they battled back, he tried to make a good pitch 3-2, and then he would walk a guy. But he battled, kept us in the game, his pitch count got high.

And sending Gore back out for the fifth at 86 pitches? “We thought he had enough in the tank. He came out throwing 96-97, but they battled up there,” Martinez continued.

“They stayed in the at-bat, fouled some balls off, but he threw some balls good. He got two outs in the first inning then Bellinger got that base hit to get things going, 3-2 count, I mean, but he battled, he’ll come back in five days, and like I’ve said, the most important thing for him is keep pumping strikes.”

BACK PAGE - Dom Smith Joins The Chat:

While he isn’t off to the sort of start he or the Nationals were hoping for, Dominic Smith has fit in well and made a positive impact in the first months of his time in Washington, D.C. His manager, Davey Martinez, talked last week about how the 27-year-old slugger, who was 22 for 94 (.232/.311/.274) with a double and a home run in 106 plate appearances going into a four-game set with Chicago’s Cubs this week in the nation’s capital, is fitting in with his new team.

“He’s been awesome,” Martinez said. “He really has.”

“He’s come as advertised. Great teammate. Nobody gives him credit for his defense, but he’s been playing phenomenal defense over at first base. And I know that it’s early in the season, we’re going to get him right with his swing. I know he can hit.

“I’m proud of the way he’s going about his business. He never gets down, he keeps focusing on the day and the game, and that’s all we can ask from him.”

Smith connecting for his first home run of the season over the weekend, when he hit a 95 MPH sinker up high from Pittsburgh Pirates’ reliever Yohan Ramirez 401 feet to center at a speed of 101.1 MPH off the bat, was another positive step as Davey Martinez and Co. with the Nationals try to get the veteran going at the plate in his first year with the team after he signed a 1-year/$2M free agent deal this winter.

MLB: APR 30 Pirates at Nationals Photo by Mark Goldman/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

“Absolutely,” Martinez said after Smith homered for the club’s only run scored in a 16-1 loss to the Bucs on Saturday night.

“And the fact that he hit it to straightaway center field, which we’re telling him, ‘Get behind the baseball, stay in the middle field,’ is beautiful. For me it’s a testament that he’s not giving away at-bats. He’s up there, he’s grinding. Things haven’t gone the way he wanted to, and he’s grinding, he’s trying to figure things out, and for him to come up there, and hit the ball hard like that, straightaway center, hit a home run, that could jumpstart him here a little bit, so that was awesome to see.”

Smith was 2 for 2 at the plate last night after he doubled to center field on a 2-1 curveball from Cubs’ starter Drew Smyly for his 2nd two-base hit of 2023, and 3 for 3 after he hit a two-out single in the home-half of the seventh.

Zone Contact%:

Keibert Ruiz, going into last night’s game, had seen pitches in the zone about 46% of the time in his at-bats this season, according to Baseball Savant’s data, and he’d swung at 68.7% of pitches in the zone, while making contact with 95.1% of those pitches in the zone which he’s offered at.

If you’re wondering, as evidenced by the chart The Washington Post writer Andrew Golden sent out on Twitter yesterday, that 95.1% Zone Contact% is the highest amongst Nationals’ hitters. His manager was asked if Ruiz needs to be more discerning of which pitches in the zone he swings at when he makes contact with them as often as he does, looking maybe a little more discerningly for pitches he can do damage on.

“I want him to be aggressive in the zone,” the sixth-year skipper said. “That was the biggest thing, and we’re getting him there ... He’s hitting 2-3 balls hard a game, which is awesome. Now pitch recognition for him is the key. Which pitches can he drive, which pitches can he hit hard. Situational hitting. What is he trying to accomplish in that situation, right? But he’s really doing good — I mean, he’s really doing great. I’m not going to say ‘good.’ He’s doing great. He’s trying to stay in the middle of the field, yet he’s understanding what pitches he wants to hit, and in the zone, let it go.

“He’s not the guy that’s going to go up there and walk,” Martinez added, though Ruiz did have more walks than Ks on the season (8 walks/7 Ks) after taking one in the series finale with the Pirates on Sunday... and he had struck out just twice in his last 17 games and 75 plate appearances, with a .360 OBP (and .294 AVG) over that stretch.

“He’s a guy that swings the bat,” the manager continued. “The good thing is that he’s not chasing a whole lot of balls out of the zone, where you get that weak contact.

“The balls in the zone, he’s starting to hit the ball — his exit velo has been pretty good over the last couple weeks, which is what we want to see.”

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