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MacKenzie Gore is a perfectionist who’s not yet perfect

MacKenzie Gore, 24, joined the Nationals in the Juan Soto trade but didn't pitch for Washington last season because of an elbow injury. (Megan Briggs/Getty Images)
7 min

JUPITER, Fla. — Here is MacKenzie Gore, uber-talented Washington Nationals left-hander, going against the grain following the third start of a spring that is enormously important for his career and for his franchise’s future: “I’m going to try to be positive.”

That may not be his nature.

“He is a perfectionist,” said his new manager, Dave Martinez, who barely knows him but has already gained that strong impression. “He can tend to be a little hard on himself. ... Trying to get him to kind of stick to the process and not get so heated up when he makes a bad pitch.”

So, then, about that four-pitch walk to open Tuesday’s start against the Miami Marlins.

“Yeah,” Gore said. “That’s beautiful, huh?”

Gore is 6-foot-2 and 192 pounds, lean and lanky and athletic. He has the body of a starting pitcher and the air of a starting pitcher. His health and his performance — in that order — will go much further toward determining whether the upcoming Nats season is a success than any number of wins or losses. So his introduction to his new fan base must include the following: He has standards for himself, and if he does not meet them, he will not be happy.

“I kind of expect to do things right,” Gore said. “Sometimes I find what I did wrong before I figure out what was good. I expect to do things right, [to] be really good. When things are not really good, I need to find out what’s wrong.”

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As long as he doesn’t beat himself over the head too frequently and with too much force, that’s not a bad attitude to have. Gore’s line in what became a 5-3 victory over the Marlins was unremarkable on the surface: three innings in which he allowed three hits and two runs, only one of them earned. He walked that leadoff hitter and struck out just one. Building for the entirety and enormity of a big league season, as tiring as it is to hear, is a process. The future of neither Gore nor the Nats was at stake in front of a half-engaged crowd of 2,271 at Roger Dean Stadium. And yet it can still be important.

“We’ve got some work to do,” Gore said.

That’s work to get himself to be what he knows he can be, what he should be. There is a reason, when Gore’s name and his stuff become the subject of conversation around Nationals camp, the sentences are spoken with something of a hushed respect.

“I mean, four pitches he could get you out with,” shortstop CJ Abrams said.

“Throwing 95-plus from the left side with good command?” lefty Patrick Corbin said.

Not a bad place to start. His stuff, in general — how is it?

“Oh, gosh,” pitching coach Jim Hickey said.

“You start with the fastball,” catcher Riley Adams said. “It’s an electric pitch that he can locate top, bottom, whatever.”

One of the best aspects of spring training is listening to baseball people talk about baseball things when the stakes are so low. The important part of Gore’s outing was that he easily made it through three innings on just 35 pitches and finished a 50-pitch day with 15 tosses in the bullpen. His fastball was what got away from him, and Martinez said Gore has some mechanical work to do with Hickey to fix that before his next start. That’s fine. That’s what we’re here for.

The rest of the time can be filled with talk about what’s possible for this kid — and others the Nats have assembled. Not guaranteed, but possible.

So, then, start with the fastball.

“We have the ability to measure these things, and everyone talks about vertical break and blah, blah, blah,” Hickey said. “But if this had been 20 years ago, prior to knowing that he had 18 inches or 22 inches of induced vertical break, you would just say: ‘That fastball jumps. It’s live. It has carry to it. It has finish to it.’ That’s the first thing that jumps out at me.”

During his outing Tuesday, the center field scoreboard showed Gore’s fastball consistently at 94 mph, occasionally a notch above that — plenty capable of getting hitters out at the top of the strike zone. Which sets up a change-up that he committed to using more of Tuesday and that induced a swing-and-miss and a soft groundball. Which goes with a curveball that can be buried in the dirt, making it hard to guard against if hitters are worried about the rising heater. Which combines with a slider that bites at the bottom of the zone.

“Going out there and having four weapons is a big deal,” Gore said.

True. But harnessing them — along with his emotions — is as big of a deal.

“You saw it,” Martinez said afterward. “He gets all bent out of shape. We’ve got to get him to understand to just calm down a little bit.”

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If the Nationals were going to trade Juan Soto last summer — and the phrase “trade Juan Soto” still can’t be typed casually — then they were going to have to get some high-end prospects in return. Thus, the buzz in camp centers not on characters who have accomplished anything in the majors but on those who could produce in the future, when the Nats might contend again.

Having turned 24 last month and with all of 13 major league starts and 70 major league innings behind him, Gore falls squarely in that camp. He is a tantalizing and featured aspect of the 2023 Nationals even though he didn’t pitch in the majors after coming over from San Diego in the Soto trade because of an elbow issue. He is putting pressure on himself to be perfect. The Nationals will handle him … with care.

“In this particular instance, regardless of what he’s done in the past, we’re going to have to be a little bit cautious with him going forward,” Hickey said. “Let’s just say a full season is 33 starts. That’s highly, highly unlikely — and that would be by design.”

Which he should be reminded of. Progress needs to be measured not by how good he might be some day but by where he is at each step along the way. Baby steps to big things.

“He’s the perfect candidate to just become a really, really good major league pitcher for a long time,” Hickey said. “And that’s a lot of fun to watch.”

As is the process, which involves some self-flagellation. Leaning against a wall outside the visitors’ clubhouse Tuesday, Gore thought over his outing again.

“Thirty-five pitches in three innings,” and he paused, “is good.”

He was convincing himself, which is fine. But what if those 35 pitches in three innings came without a four-pitch walk to open the game and a fastball that was located consistently? That’s what MacKenzie Gore already expects of himself. One day, that’s what we should expect of him, too.