There have been some notable bumps along the way, some duds every once in a while when he takes the mound. But there have been more than a few really good nights for MacKenzie Gore in his first full season with the Nationals.
And none as good as the one the crowd at Nationals Park witnessed tonight. Even if it did end abruptly and earlier than anyone would’ve preferred. Though the final outcome more than pleased the home team and its fans.
With a devastating combination of precision, power and efficiency, Gore put together his best start as a big leaguer, overwhelming the Red Sox for 6 1/3 scoreless innings before departing with a blister on his left middle finger, an early departure that prefaced a wild finish that saw Boston rally to tie the game but the Nats respond with back-to-back homers by Keibert Ruiz and Stone Garrett for a 6-2 victory.
"That was frustrating," Gore said of the blister forcing him from the game. "But it's something I deal with. There's no panic button or anything. There was a lot of good tonight. We got ahead of guys. Keibert was awesome. We turned a lot of double plays. And we hit some big homers."
Jordan Weems, who replaced Gore on the mound, gave up a game-tying homer to Pablo Reyes in the eighth. No problem, because his teammates were ready to pick him up. Ruiz launched a three-run homer to right-center off reliever Garrett Whitlock, the young catcher’s latest clutch blast in a season full of them.
"I feel like I'm just not trying to do too much," said Ruiz, who has hit 10 of his 15 home runs in the seventh inning or later, four of those to either tie the game or give his team the lead. "I'm just being more patient, waiting for my pitch. I'm having good results. I just have to keep it going."
Moments after Ruiz's blast, Garrett drove a pitch from Whitlock some 442 feet to dead center for his second homer of the game and the final stamp on an impressive win.
"It's like, let's add on now," Garrett said of his reaction to Ruiz's homer from the on-deck circle. "That was a huge homer there. And it seems like he's been clutch this last month, two months, in big spots. It kind of takes the pressure off of you, so you can just go up there, get your pitch and do some damage."
The late-game drama was fun for the bipartisan crowd of 26,507, but truthfully the events of the first 6 1/3 innings carried far more significance in the bigger picture.
Gore picked an awfully good time to do this, bouncing back from a ragged start in Philadelphia last week and easing the workload for a Nationals bullpen that had been overtaxed during Tuesday night’s loss after Josiah Gray lasted only three innings.
"I expect myself to throw the ball well. This was really good, though," he said. "There were a lot of good things. The pitch count was low. But I expect to do things well. We've been doing things the right way, and we finally got some results tonight, which was cool."
Gore’s teammates supplied him with just enough offensive support, with Michael Chavis and Garrett each homering off Boston lefty James Paxton, allowing their starter to work most of the night with a 2-0 lead. Gore took over from there with a masterful performance that included seven strikeouts, only three baserunners and a reduction of his ERA to 4.38.
"I've said this all year long: His stuff is electric," manager Davey Martinez said. "He's got to understand what he wants to do every fifth day, whenever he goes out there. But when he has command of his fastball and he pounds the zone, everything else works for him."
On the heels of a six-run, three-homer start last week that was overshadowed by Phillies right-hander Michael Lorenzen’s no-hitter, Gore took the mound tonight committed to being better. He was even better than better. He was lights-out.
Firing first-pitch strikes to 17 of the 22 batters he faced, Gore was perfect through three innings, barely breaking a sweat on an unseasonably comfortable August evening in D.C. He surrendered his first (and only) hit in the fourth via Justin Turner’s opposite-field single.
"I think just my delivery was good today," he said. "We were able to get it to the right spot, release-point-wise, and we were able to throw strikes."
Gore finally reached a three-ball count for the first time in the sixth, walking Connor Wong. Even then, he immediately bounced back by inducing an inning-ending double play on the next pitch he threw, completing six scoreless innings on 71 pitches and giving himself a chance to return for the seventh for only the third time this year.
That’s when his otherwise fantastic night ended on a sour note. Gore issued a leadoff walk to Turner, then got Rafael Devers to ground into a force out, bringing Trevor Story to the plate. His first pitch was an 86-mph changeup, and it sailed high and wide past Ruiz. Gore immediately rubbed his left hand against his backside in some kind of discomfort, and Martinez and director of athletic training Paul Lessard immediately jogged out of the dugout to check on him.
Following a brief conversation, Gore departed alongside Lessard, looking at his left middle finger, which was cut and caused a blister, as the crowd simultaneously applauded the effort while holding its breath, hoping nothing serious had just occurred.
"The (changeup) that got way up was the indication that something was really wrong," Martinez said. "I went out there with Paulie. And when we saw it, there was no doubt he needed to come out of the game."
Gore was still in the dugout cheering for Weems when the reliever induced a double-play grounder to end the seventh, further suggesting he didn’t require immediate medical attention.
"It's happened," Gore said. "Just once it gets to that point where it's ripped that much, you can't really do anything. But it will be fine by the next start."
Weems would return to pitch the eighth, which didn’t go nearly as well as the seventh did. The former Boston prospect gave up a one-out single to Alex Verdugo, then grooved a 2-1 fastball to Reyes, who launched it to left for the game-tying homer that prevented Gore from earning a win despite the best pitching performance of his season.
Nobody was complaining at night’s end about that. There were too many positives about Gore's start to get caught up in the way it ended.
"He can be really good," Ruiz said. "We've just got to keep working hard, keep learning about everything. When he attacks the zone and throws a lot of strikes, he's really good."