Gore shines in fast-paced Nationals debut

JUPITER, Fla. – The sun was shining, the pitch clock was ticking and MacKenzie Gore was pumping strikes against the meat of the Cardinals’ A lineup en route to a scoreless inning in his Nationals debut.

“Not much more I can ask for after an outing like that,” catcher Riley Adams said. “I thought he was really dialed in.”

The Nats’ 2023 exhibition opener – a come-from-behind, 3-2 victory over St. Louis played in a brisk 2 hours, 26 minutes – featured some nice late-inning rallies, quality pitching throughout and a couple of violations of Major League Baseball’s brand-new pitch clock. But the most important development on an 84-degree Saturday afternoon at Roger Dean Chevrolet Stadium in the big picture was Gore’s long-awaited debut for the team that acquired him last summer.

Sidelined with an elbow injury at the time of the blockbuster trade with the Padres, Gore couldn’t make it back in time to start a game before season’s end. So his debut in a curly W cap was delayed until this afternoon in the Grapefruit League opener. It wasn’t nearly as big a deal as his official regular season debut in five weeks will be, but the 24-year-old lefty teased everyone just enough in one inning to heighten the anticipation for his starts that actually count.

“I thought it was good,” the understated Gore said. “I thought we were building off what we did in the (live batting practice sessions earlier this week). There are just some things that need to get better, but yeah, I thought it was pretty solid overall.”

Gore threw 18 pitches (13 strikes) to four batters in a scoreless inning. He struck out Tommy Edman with a fastball, got Tyler O’Neill to pop up, shrugged as Paul Goldschmidt pulled off a fortuitous double when his grounder skipped off the enlarged third base and rolled deep into foul territory, then finished things off by getting Nolan Arenado to fly out to right.

The other pertinent facts: Gore’s fastball was consistently 95-96 mph. His slider nearly averaged 90 mph, his changeup 88 mph and his curveball 81 mph.

“I would say that’s good for right now,” the lefty said. “I would like for it to keep ticking up a little bit, but 95-96, is good.”

“It’s got some life to it,” Adams said of the fastball. “A few of the pitches, I feel like when he’s working down in the zone, you think the ball’s going to be a little lower, but it just – I don’t know the physics of everything, but it feels like it just stays up a little bit longer, so you can catch some pitches at the bottom of the zone. … It’s got some life to it, and it’s going to be fun to catch.”

Gore was efficient and quick, and as such wasn’t involved in any pitch-clock violations. A couple of his teammates weren’t so fortunate.

The first violation actually came not from a pitcher, but from designated hitter Yadiel Hernández, who was tagged with an automatic strike by plate umpire Carlos Torres when he didn’t get himself set in the batter’s box with eight seconds remaining on the clock prior to the first pitch of his first-inning at-bat.

“We told him: You can’t drag,” manager Davey Martinez said. “He gets in there, he gets out. I said: ‘You’re going to get called a strike,’ and he did. He learned. The next time, he almost did it again, and we had to scream at him: ‘Stay in the box!’” It’s going to take getting used to for some guys.”

The only pitcher to get flagged was Alex Colomé, the veteran reliever who was charged with an automatic ball when he didn’t release his first pitch to Lars Nootbaar in time. Colomé appeared to rush to throw his next offering, then watched as Nootbaar nearly homered to right, the ball getting caught up just enough in the wind to keep it in the park.

“He doesn’t want to change anything in his mechanics, but it might come a point where he’s going to have to,” Martinez said. “Because a lot of times we looked up, and he’s only at 2-3 seconds to get rid of the ball. So it’s a little close. As we get going and we play normal games in high-leverage situations, that might become a problem.”

Those violations aside, general consensus about the pitch clock was positive. The game moved at a brisk pace throughout, completed in less than 2 1/2 hours even with the home team batting in the bottom of the ninth. It will take some getting used to, though.

“Shoot, how fast was this game, 2:26? There you go,” Adams said. “It’s definitely moving fast. It’s the first spring training game, first time with the clock. Everything is going to feel a little faster right now. I think give it a week or two in the spring, and you’re not going to notice it at all.”

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