Gore finds peak form with 11 strikeouts in Nats' win over A's

OAKLAND, Calif. – It’s days like this, performances like this, that make you realize why the Nationals were so high on MacKenzie Gore all along.

The Nats have had promising young left-handers over the years. They’ve had guys with good fastballs. They’ve had pitchers determined to be the best.

But they’ve never had all of that wrapped into one package. Gore has everything going for him; he just needs to start putting it together on a regular basis. And on this day, he did.

With an unhittable fastball that overwhelmed the Athletics lineup, Gore struck out 11 in five scoreless innings, leading the Nationals to a 3-1 victory in one of the signature starts of his burgeoning career.

“It’s beautiful,” manager Davey Martinez said. “He goes out there and attacks the strike zone. He goes out there and competes. Hopefully, we can now see that consistency.”

The 11 strikeouts matched Gore’s career high, set last May against the Royals. He pitched seven innings that day in Kansas City, though. Today he did it in five, becoming the first pitcher in club history with 11 strikeouts in a start of five or fewer innings.

“It’s always good to miss bats,” the 25-year-old said. “The first inning wasn’t great, but I thought we did a great job after that. And then the bullpen was great. We did what we needed to win today, and we’ve got a chance to win a series tomorrow.”

The only knock on Gore? All the strikeouts and long at-bats drove up his pitch count. Martinez opted to pull him after 90 pitches, leaving the final four innings of this tight game in the hands of his bullpen.

Derek Law and Robert Garcia combined to post a zero in the sixth. Garcia returned for the seventh and allowed a run, but Jordan Weems stopped the bleeding by striking out Zack Gelof with the tying run on second base. Hunter Harvey stranded a runner in scoring position in the eighth. And Kyle Finnegan, who took the loss in the 10th Friday night, bounced back to earn his fifth save and ensure Gore’s start wouldn’t be wasted.

“I’m really trying to keep him at that 90-pitch mark,” Martinez said. “Especially a day like today, when it’s kind of cold out. Because we’re going to build him up. We want him to finish the season and not have to worry about innings.”

Gore picked up right where Jake Irvin left off Friday night, the young right-hander having allowed only one hit (a homer) in six innings. Unlike his rotation mate, Gore actually got the opportunity to pitch with a lead most of the day.

For only the fourth time in 14 games this season, the Nationals scored first. They did so via CJ Abrams’ RBI triple to right in the top of the third, the dynamic leadoff hitter racing around the bases at 28.6 feet per second as Jacob Young raced all the way around from first at 28.5 feet per second to give his team a 1-0 lead.

As was the case Friday night, there were ample opportunities for more offense. And as was the case in the series opener, the Nats kept failing to convert. They went zero for their first eight with runners in scoring position, leaving them 0-for-18 over the span of roughly 19 hours.

Then Luis García Jr. finally broke through, lining a two-out RBI double over center fielder Max Schuemann’s head to score Jesse Winker from third. The Nationals had themselves a hit with runners in scoring position at last, not to mention a 2-0 lead. (They would add a key insurance run in the ninth, getting three straight two-out hits from Trey Lipscomb, Riley Adams and Jacob Young.)

“I felt great to be able to come through in that situation,” García said, via interpreter Octavio Martinez. “We have been struggling at that, with runners in scoring position. But we battle, we stay together, we keep battling in our at-bats. And hopefully, we get more of those driven in.”

By the time García extended the lead, Martinez had already made the decision to pull his starter. With his pitch count at 90, Gore was done after five innings.

“It was the right thing to do at that time,” the lefty said. “Especially in April.”

The left-hander was brilliant while on the mound, sticking to a simple game plan and executing it well. With a fastball that averaged 96.3 mph, he went right after A’s hitters, showing no fear. Fifty-two of Gore’s 90 pitches were four-seam fastballs. Batters swung at 28 of them and managed to put only five into play. They fouled off 11 of them. They whiffed at 12 of them.

“Sometimes he gets himself in trouble because of the secondary pitches,” Martinez said. “He doesn’t have to do that. He can go ahead and throw his fastball up top, down and away, up and in. Because his fastball has that much movement.”

All told, Gore induced 20 swings and misses in his five innings of work. He struck out three batters in the first, another in the second and two more a piece in the third and fourth. And when he struck out the side in the fifth, giving him five in a row, he ended his afternoon with a flourish and reminded everyone why he was such an integral part of the Juan Soto trade.

“He has confidence in everything,” Adams said. “And the crazy part is, I think there’s still more in there. I think there’s more than what we saw today. It makes it all really exciting. I can’t wait for his next outing.”

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