It was unrealistic to expect MacKenzie Gore to repeat a career-best outing this time against the Mets. That’s a difficult feat to accomplish on any given night, much less twice against the same team in about a two-week time frame.
And sure enough, tonight’s outing was unlike when the young left-hander took the mound at Citi Field on April 26 and shoved for six innings of one-run ball with four hits and two walks while matching a career high with 10 strikeouts.
Though not as impressive tonight, Gore still gutted through four scoreless innings. Unfortunately, it was all for naught as the Nationals bullpen broke down, leading to a 3-2 loss to the Mets in front of an announced crowd of 31,904 at Nats Park.
Gore’s high pitch count did him in early. He needed 37 pitches to get through the first inning, in which he faced six batters while giving up a single and two walks with two outs. He needed 22 pitches to complete the second while giving up two hits. Then he needed 25 pitches to get out of the third after another couple of singles.
The Mets did what they could not do while striking out 10 times two weeks ago: wore Gore down with long at-bats. They took balls out of the strike zone and fouled off tough pitches to extend their time at the plate.
“I actually threw some first-pitch strikes," Gore said after the game. "I didn't locate off-speed. And they also did a much better job tonight of not chasing. Just had some misses and just didn't locate off-speed, I didn't think, really, at all. So it was tough. We managed to get through it. But yeah, I just didn't locate the secondary pitches very well tonight.”
During the bottom of the third, Andrés Machado started warming up in the bullpen, seemingly getting ready to put a very early end to Gore’s night. But the southpaw emerged from the Nats dugout at the start of the fourth and pitched his most efficient inning. Despite giving up another single, Gore needed only 12 pitches to finish the frame.
But some quick math shows that put him at 96 pitches. Perhaps it was tempting for Davey Martinez to try to squeeze a couple more outs, if not a full inning, out of his young starter, but ultimately the manager decided to go to his bullpen.
Gore finished his four scoreless innings with five hits, two walks and three strikeouts. He only threw about 60 percent of his pitches for strikes. But even though it wasn’t as flashy as his last time facing the Mets, it showed the guts he has to grind out a rough start, surely impressing those in his dugout.
“I liked the way he just, you know, he fell behind, fell behind and he kept grinding, kept getting big outs," Martinez said. "He came up to me - and I love that about him - he said he had more in the tank, and I told him 'I'm not gonna do that. I mean, four innings and (96) pitches, I need you for more games than just this one.' But I love the fact that he even came up to me and asked me. So it was awesome.”
Although he didn’t pitch deep enough into the game to be the pitcher of record, Gore did leave with the Nationals ahead. In the bottom of the first, Luis García drew a four-pitch walk (his 10th of the season already), stole second base and scored on Joey Meneses' bloop single into shallow right field to give the Nats an early 1-0 lead.
Then after Gore completed the top of the fourth, Alex Call hit a leadoff double, moved to third on CJ Abrams' groundout to short and scored on Francisco Lindor's error on a grounder by Jake Alu for a 2-0 lead.
Alu, who wasn’t credited with a double or an RBI due to the error, had an exciting Nationals Park debut. After going 0-for-4 with three strikeouts in his major league debut in San Francisco on Tuesday, he recorded his first big league hit and stolen base in the second inning, slapping the second pitch he saw from Mets starter Tylor Megill the other way into left field.
“Kind of wanted to see a pitch," Alu said. "See what it looks like from at the plate and then kind of got a fastball to hit. Lindor was kind of shifted up the middle and kind of gave me a hole over there.”
Alu then made an incredible diving catch in left to rob Jeff McNeil in the fifth, an impressive showing of athleticism for the 5-foot-10, 186-pound true infielder.
“It was unbelievable," Alu said of his first experience playing at Nats Park. "There was a great crowd there tonight. And it was unbelievable. Like I said I did in San Fran, I went out to the outfield the first time and I kind of, like, gave a little 360 (spin) just to kind of take it all in. It was special.”
“Great, great day," Martinez said. "He played really well, all the way around. Base running, the play in left field was phenomenal, he got his first hit out of the way. So he had a really good day.”
After first warming in the third, Machado finally entered in the fifth and only gave up a single to Pete Alonso on a tough grounder to Abrams, needing 17 pitches.
Coming back out for the sixth, Machado gave up a single and double to put two runners in scoring position before recording an out. He then made a heads-up play as he fielded a bouncer right back to him and went home to get Starling Marte, who had broken for the plate, and keep the Nats ahead 2-0.
After recording one more out, Machado gave way to Carl Edwards Jr., who entered to face a two-on, two-out jam. He issued a five-pitch walk to Brandon Nimmo and then surrendered the lead on a three-run single by Lindor, who hit an inside fastball back up the middle.
“I wasn't aggressive in the zone," Edwards said. "If I don't walk people, I get outs. If I walk people, I don't get outs. I gotta do a better job competing as a player, as a pitcher. Just to go in there and just pound the strike zone.”
The Mets had scored just two runs over their previous 24 innings. They scored three on that one swing by Lindor.
“The matchup was CEJ on Nimmo," Martinez said. "And the walk. We talk all the time about him walking guys, and he's got throw strikes. If he throws strikes, he's good. He walks him and then he goes behind to a really good hitter, 3-2. Didn't really hit it hard, but he hit it good enough.”
Edwards’ ERA is still a respectable 2.40, but his WHIP is now 1.400 and he’s only pitched four clean outings over his 16 to start the season.
“This whole game is on me," he said. "If I get out of the inning, we'll probably come in and score two more runs, it's a 4-0 lead and we're out of it. Put another W up. But I didn't do my job like I was supposed to. It came back to bite me in the butt, the walk did. There's always tomorrow. Just bounce back tomorrow and come ready to play.”
The Nats offense did have chances early on to score more off Megill, who, like Gore, wasn’t in total control tonight but did enough to limit the damage. Through the right-hander’s five innings of work, the Nats recorded four hits and four walks off him. But they only managed the two runs (one earned) while going 1-for-8 with runners in scoring position and leaving six on base.
The Mets bullpen then retired 12 of the final 14 Nats hitters, the only ones to reach being Jeimer Candelario on a leadoff walk and Alu on another free pass in the top of the ninth.
The Nationals entered this series only 1 ½ games behind the Mets in the division. Even by dropping this game they had in hand, they can still leapfrog New York in the National League East by winning the next three of this four-game series.
“We battled, we played," Martinez said. "We got four hits, a couple of runs early. Couldn't put any more on the board, but when your starting pitcher goes four innings, it's tough. But they didn't quit and we battled back.”