WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — A beginner’s guide to MacKenzie Gore interviews: He often refers to “we” — as in “I thought we were good early” — to group his play with his catcher and/or team. He regularly deprecates himself with a dry wit. And to that end, the left-hander is hard on himself.
Really, really hard on himself.
When Gore was asked to assess a five-run, nine-hit outing against the Houston Astros on Friday, he said: “I mean, the line at some point is saying something. But we’re just going to keep working. … I just need to pitch a little better.”
When asked whether fastball command was the reason he kept falling behind, he answered, “Yeah, I would say just command of everything.”
And when a reporter mentioned a back-foot slider that induced an ugly swing from José Abreu, he noted, “We threw some good pitches, so that’s crazy.”
“Oh, my gosh,” Manager Dave Martinez said on whether Gore is too tough on Gore. “Honestly, we got to get him to stop. We really do. . . . We got to get him back into just competing, not being so critical about every pitch he throws. We have to get him to relax a little bit. He’s really good, and he’s going to get better.”
Along with the five runs and nine hits Friday, Gore walked two and struck out three in four innings. Jeremy Peña, the World Series MVP, tagged him with two homers to left-center. In his previous start, Gore struggled to command his fastball but ended strong. Against the Astros, he escaped two early jams but stumbled to the finish and still fell behind early in too many counts.
There is no pitch-by-pitch Statcast data at the Nationals and Astros’ shared spring training stadium, which can make it hard to analyze pitchers beyond their own assessments. Gore, then, offered a frank view in the hallway outside of Washington’s clubhouse. He knows spring training is not always a precursor for the regular season. But he stated, quite plainly, that five runs and nine hits — and a 7.07 ERA for the spring — can be an indication of something. He wants whatever that something is to go away.
“I think there’s probably been times this spring where I’ve put too much pressure on myself,” Gore said Friday. And seeing that the Nationals acquired the 24-year-old from the San Diego Padres in the Juan Soto trade, there are big hopes for his short- and long-term future.
Through his first nine appearances last year, Gore had a 1.50 ERA in 48 innings. He was a rookie of the year favorite and a Cy Young candidate. But in his next seven outings, Gore yielded 27 earned runs in 22 innings. Opponents had a 1.068 OPS against him. By late July, he was shut down with elbow soreness and missed the rest of the season.
For that reason, he is both a key part of the Nationals’ rebuild and a relative unknown. He broke into professional baseball as the third pick of the 2017 draft. His minor league career was up and down. When Gore is at his best, his mid-90s fastball plays well at the top of the strike zone, a product of his strong vertical movement. His curveball can be a plus out pitch. But an inconsistent arm slot has sometimes led to shoddy command. And shoddy command has let bad at-bats explode into bad innings.
“The biggest thing for me right now is when things don’t go his way, we’ve got to get him to understand to stay out of that big inning,” Martinez said, “to slow everything down and get to the next pitch.”
From the dugout, Martinez has seen Gore lament strikes he didn’t like. Consider Gore a process-over-results kind of guy. The Astros swung early and often Friday, as is usually the case in spring training. A few of their seven singles off Gore were soft. More of them were hard-hit. But in Gore’s head, the most important line is how many counts he worked ahead in vs. how many favored the hitter.
Typically, more hitter’s counts will tilt his line in the wrong direction. To find comfort in recent starts, though, Gore can peek at last spring. Before the Padres left Peoria, Ariz., Gore allowed four runs, four hits, a homer and two walks in four innings. A few weeks later, he was one of the top young pitchers in baseball.
“So maybe that’s what we’re rolling toward here,” he said. Then he laughed a little bit.