Gore finishes strong but seeks better start to outings

JUPITER, Fla. – MacKenzie Gore walked around the mound during the bottom of the second at Roger Dean Stadium with little reason to be excited about the way this start was going. Five of the first eight Cardinals batters he faced in today’s exhibition had reached base, three via extra-base hit, with all kinds of loud contact off him.

On the heels of another disappointing spring outing in this same ballpark, this was shaping up to be a particularly frustrating afternoon for the Nationals left-hander.

By the time he walked off the mound at the end of the fourth inning, Gore’s mood had dramatically changed. After retiring eight of the last nine batters he faced, there was at last reason to be encouraged by the manner in which he salvaged this start.

“In the past, I’ve let games like that balloon into six, eight runs. So that was good,” he said. “We came back, and the last two innings were much better than the first two.”

Not that this was an overwhelmingly positive day for Gore, or for the Nationals, who lost 5-1 to a St. Louis team with 17 absent players right now because of the World Baseball Classic. Only two of the nine Cardinals batters who faced Gore today are likely to make the Opening Day roster: backup catcher Andrew Knizner and outfielder Alec Burleson.

Though he finished strong, Gore did not start well. And that’s been a recurring issue for the young lefty.

“I need to get better at starting,” he said. “That’s always been a thing my whole life.”

Just five days after he opened a start in this ballpark with a four-pitch walk, Gore opened this one with a five-pitch walk. He then served up an RBI double to Burleson, followed by an RBI single to Taylor Motter. One inning later, Kramer Robertson led off the second with a first-pitch homer to left, then Justin Toerner ripped a double to right and later scored the Cardinals’ fourth run.

Most of the damage came off Gore’s fastball, which he wasn’t locating well. Manager Davey Martinez believes it was a product of poor mechanics.

“He gets ahead of himself a little bit, and his arm drags,” Martinez said. “That’s why he had all those misses.”

The solution: Between innings, Martinez and pitching coach Jim Hickey instructed Gore to start throwing some changeups, forcing him to fully extend his arm as he released the pitch and cleaning up his timing mechanics. Then, when he began throwing fastballs again, he was in the proper position to have success.

“If he takes anything from today, I hope it’s that,” Martinez said, then demonstrating with his left arm and shoulder the issue. “He needs to get his extension out front, not back here. He’s playing catch-up when his body’s here and his arm’s here. That’s where you see the arm-side run.”

Gore seemed to get the message, because his final two innings were nearly perfect, aside from one walk of Robertson on a borderline 3-2 pitch he thought should’ve been strike three.

“I think we made an adjustment. We started mixing in other things,” he said. “A lot of fastballs early. That was my fault. I was behind (in the count). But we started mixing things up. They were aggressive. So we started mixing it up, and things got much better.”

In some ways, this is exactly what a 24-year-old pitcher should be learning on March 12 in Jupiter. That said, Gore may only have three tune-ups left before he takes the mound for real in April. At some point, he needs to enjoy positive results from the outset in a spring training game.

“Yeah, they’re getting important,” he admitted. “The season’s coming in, what, two weeks from today. We’ve got a few more outings. We still have some days. So, don’t need to start panicking or anything. But there is a step we need to take. It’s time to take the next step.”

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