MacKenzie Gore had been waiting for this, longer than he ever wanted. Same for the Nationals. And their fans, as well. From the moment the Nats and Padres consummated one of the biggest trades in baseball history, the notion of Gore making his D.C. debut had been front and center on many people’s minds. Alas, a bout of elbow inflammation delayed that debut until this afternoon.
At last, though, precisely eight months to the day since the trade that sent Juan Soto and Josh Bell to San Diego for a horde of prospects, the premier pitcher in the deal took the mound on South Capitol Street in a regular season game. And then delivered on the promise of what he could be for this franchise for years to come.
With 5 1/3 strong, at times dominant, innings against one of the toughest lineups in the majors, Gore led the Nationals to their first victory of 2023, a 4-1 triumph before an appreciative crowd of 21,440 that finally had reason to cheer for something positive and for someone with the potential to be a cornerstone of this roster rebuild.
"It's been a long time," the lefty said. "I've been looking forward to it. It was a lot of fun."
Gore allowed just one run on three hits. He struck out six. And though he walked four, he still managed to throw 60 percent of his pitches for strikes and show off the dazzling repertoire that has made him a top pitching prospect since the Padres drafted him third overall in 2017.
And thanks to a four-run outburst from a lineup that had totaled only three runs in the season’s first two games, Gore emerged with his first win while the Nats avoided what would’ve been a deflating three-game sweep to begin the season.
"Today was an important day, but it wasn't necessarily about me," he said. "We needed to figure out how to win. We're capable of beating this team, like we showed today. It was more about that than about me today."
With a fastball that averaged 95 mph and topped out at 97 mph, plus a slider that maxed out at 90 mph itself, Gore looked the part of a 24-year-old ace. He went right after Atlanta’s potent lineup, striking out Matt Olson and Austin Riley in the first inning and not surrendering a hit until Ozzie Albies’ single in the fourth.
"When he's on the mound," third baseman Jeimer Candelario said, "you know that he knows what he's doing."
Gore’s 1-2-3 top of the first was nice, to be sure. His teammates’ four-run bottom of the first was even nicer, giving the young lefty and the entire ballpark a chance to breathe easy for the first time all weekend.
Facing Braves lefty Jared Shuster in his major league debut, the Nationals were aggressive early on, with Lane Thomas, Joey Meneses and Dominic Smith all singling in the first on a combined total of four pitches seen. Candelario, Keibert Ruiz and Alex Call didn’t get much of anything near the strike zone, so they all happily accepted their walks, the latter two with the bases loaded. Add a sacrifice fly from Luis García, and the Nats had themselves a much-needed, 4-0 lead after one.
"That's what we need right there," Candelario said. "We need to put pressure on other teams. We need to have confidence in each other all the time, and just control the game from the first inning through the ninth inning. That's what we did today."
They didn’t do much else against Shuster, who was perhaps one batter away from getting yanked in the first but managed to settle in and make it into the fifth without allowing another run. It didn’t matter, because Gore took that early lead and ran with it.
His only real hiccup came in the fourth, which opened with a full-count walk of Ronald Acuña Jr. and later included back-to-back, two-out singles by Albies and Travis d’Arnaud, the latter of them driving in the Braves’ lone run off him.
Gore took the mound for the sixth with his pitch count a very manageable 79 and proceeded to strike out Acuña with a curveball. He walked Olson and allowed a bloop single to Riley, and though he still looked like he had more in the tank, he was pulled by Davey Martinez with his pitch count at 93.
"We wanted to keep him around 90 pitches," Martinez said. "And I think that was sufficient."
"I'm not sure exactly what the pitch count was, but the walk kind of put me in a hole," Gore said. "If I don't walk the guy, then maybe (Martinez leaves me in). I figured after the walk, we were going to try to get a double-play ball. Yeah, I completely understood it."
Hunter Harvey took care of business in short order, inducing that desired 4-6-3 double play out of Albies to end the inning. Erasmo Ramírez, Carl Edwards Jr. and Kyle Finnegan then finished it off with minimal drama; Finnegan earning his first save and securing Gore’s long-awaited first win in the process.
"When we made the trade and he was involved in it, we were all excited," Martinez said. "To see him out there competing the way he competed today was awesome. He picked us all up today."