MacKenzie Gore was caught off guard by the trade last August which brought the lefty and four other high-end prospects (plus Luke Voit) to Washington, D.C., and sent Juan Soto and Josh Bell to San Diego.
He told reporters shortly after joining the Nationals it was an emotional few days as the reality of the trade set in.
“San Diego has kind of been home since I was 18,” the 24-year-old 2017 1st Round pick by the Padres said, “so it was an emotional day, but I was excited going with teammates and going closer to home [in North Carolina], so there’s a lot of positives, but yeah, it was an emotional day.”
Joining the Nationals, and becoming part of the core of the club’s reboot or rebuild or reset or whatever along with shortstop CJ Abrams, outfielders James Wood and Robert Hassell III, and pitcher Jarlin Susana, the last three now ranked 1, 2, and 6, respectively in the Nationals’ system by MLB Pipeline, had Gore excited about the future with his new club.
“Definitely exciting,” he said last August. “It just means we have a job to do, and we got to go out there and play well. We all do.
“But that’s also it, which is a good thing, we have a job and continue to get better every day and go out there and play well.”
MacKenzie Gore, Filthy Slider and Curveball. pic.twitter.com/bRwvC57uWY— Rob Friedman (@PitchingNinja) May 24, 2023
Gore was injured at the time of the trade and he made rehab starts in the minors late in the year, but he didn’t make his big league debut with his new team until this season, and going into his first start against his old club, with whom he made his MLB debut last year, the left-hander had a 3.69 ERA, 3.67 FIP, 4.47 BB/9, 11.27 K/9, and a .251/.337/.383 line against in his nine starts and 46 1⁄3 IP so far.
Nats’ skipper Davey Martinez talked last weekend about what, if any, advice he had for Gore going into the outing against the Padres.
“He’s going to be a little antsy,” Martinez said, “... so we just got to get him to calm down a little bit, understand what he wants to do, and pitch to his strengths. We got to keep an eye on him, slow his heartbeat down a little bit. I know he wants to go out there and do well against his former team. I’ve been there, we’ve all been there, but we got to control his heartbeat a little bit and just tell him, “Hey, pitch like you’ve been pitching, keep the ball in the zone, and make your pitches.”
Martinez said he would talk to Abrams as well, and make sure he and Gore were in the right head space going into the three games with the Padres in the nation’s capital.
“Yeah, yeah, definitely,” he said. “And I’ll have that conversation today with them, and just let them [know], ‘I know your former guys are coming in and you’ve got a lot of buddies over there, just remember you play for the Washington Nationals now, you’re doing good, don’t change a thing,’ so they’ll understand, and like I said, we’ll keep an eye on them, but they are who they are, right? For me, when Tuesday comes I’ll let them go out there and let them play and see how they react.”
Before last night’s game, the sixth-year skipper said he thought Gore was handling things fine as he prepared for the start, though he tends to keep his distance on days he’s set to start.
“So far so good. I saw him earlier today, he seemed relaxed. He’s going through his routine.
“Those guys, the day they pitch, I don’t say much to them, I kind of watch and see what he’s doing, but he seems fine. We’ll see when the game starts. Like I said before, MacKenzie, he’s very animated and very competitive, and we just got to control is heartbeat a little bit, and hopefully today he just settles down early and gets the outs that we need.”
Gore didn’t last long in the outing, giving up seven hits, four walks, and three earned runs in just 4 2⁄3 IP, over which he threw 103 pitches, striking out five and giving up two home runs.
He picked up 16 swinging strikes, seven each on his fastball and slider and two on his curve, and he got 16 called strikes too, six on his fastball and 10 on his slider, but he threw 52 in his first two innings of work, and wasn’t able to make it through the fifth in what ended up a 7-4 loss in which he received no decision.
“He’s throwing a lot of pitches to get outs,” Martinez said after the series opener.
“We got to get him more in the zone, we got to get him down again. But I mean, his stuff is electric, as we all know. 100-something pitches in 4 2⁄3 innings, it’s a lot.”
“I’m just getting big,” Gore said, as quoted by MASN’s Mark Zuckerman after the game.
“Instead of just executing, I’m trying to throw a really good pitch. The execution part has just not been there. The stuff is fine, the velo’s been good. I’ve just got to execute.”
Martinez said he talked to Gore throughout the game, trying to get him to calm down and stay focused.
“We come in, I said, ‘Hey, just pound the strike zone, stay in the strike zone.’ But he gets in and gets over-amped, I mean, it’s not the first time, even though he’s playing against his former team, we’ve seen it happen, so we just got to get him settled down, and like I said, get him in the strike zone.”
Asked about the two home runs Gore allowed, the first on a 98 MPH 3-2 fastball knee-high outside which Xander Bogaerts powered out to right for an opposite field blast in the first, and a 403-foot shot to center by Brandon Dixon on a center-cut, first-pitch fastball, Gore’s manager said he though the first one was actually a good pitch.
“Bogaerts is a good hitter,” Martinez said. “That ball carried pretty good. I’ve never seen a right-handed hitter hit a ball that way, that way, so the next one was middle-middle.”
For his part, Abrams battled with Padres’ starter Yu Darvish the first time up, and took a 95 MPH heater for a called third strike, then homered the second time up, taking an 0-1 slider out to right field for his 5th of the year, a two-run blast which made it a one-run game, 3-2 San Diego, before Lane Thomas followed with a solo shot which tied things up in the next at-bat.
“It was awesome,” Martinez said of the 393-foot shot by Abrams. “Hey, when he’s on time he can hit. The biggest thing is — after his first at-bat he took a fastball, because Yu Darvish could throw anything at any time, but we told him, ‘Hey, stay on the fastball, you can adjust to the breaking balls, and second time up he stayed back and drove a ball into right field, which was awesome.
“He had good swings all day, I thought. Even the last one against [Josh] Hader, I thought it was a good swing, he just popped it up.”
“It’s exciting,” Abrams said, as quoted on MASN.
“It’s fun just playing against your former teammates and friends. It didn’t go our way, but we’ll get them tomorrow.”