Gore to start exhibition opener, Lee now working out of bullpen

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. – MacKenzie Gore’s first start in a Nationals uniform will come in the Nationals’ first game of the spring.

Gore has been picked to start Saturday’s Grapefruit League opener against the Cardinals in Jupiter, manager Davey Martinez revealed today. He’s slated to throw 25-30 pitches, perhaps completing only one inning.

“He’s ready,” Martinez said. “He’s thrown multiple (live batting practice sessions against hitters), so he’s ready to go. I’m excited to watch him go out there and pitch.”

It’ll be Gore’s long-awaited first appearance as a member of the Nationals, even if it comes in an exhibition game. The left-hander, who turns 24 on Friday, was one of the marquee prospects acquired from the Padres in last summer’s trade for Juan Soto and Josh Bell, but he spent the rest of the season rehabbing from elbow inflammation.

Gore wound up making four rehab starts at Triple-A Rochester and appeared on track to make his Nats debut during the season’s final week. But the club decided not to bother, worried his arm and body weren’t built back up enough to start what would’ve been a meaningless game at the end of the year.

Gore is fully healthy now and has had ample time to ramp up in advance of this spring debut. Even so, he’ll still have time to make as many as six exhibition starts before Opening Day, so the team isn’t going to feel like it needs to rush him or any other member of the projected rotation.

“The thing about it is, these guys came to camp, and a lot of them had (already) thrown 10-12 sides,” Martinez said. “A couple guys had already thrown two live BPs. What (pitching coach Jim) Hickey and I are trying to do now is slow them down a little bit. Get their reps in, but kind of keep them under control. It is a long season. We want these guys to break camp fully ready to go, but we’ve still got a long way to go.”

Following Gore’s spring-opening start Saturday, the Nationals have split-squad games scheduled Sunday afternoon. Trevor Williams will start the home game against the Astros, with Josiah Gray making the trip to Port St. Lucie to face the Mets. Monday is one of two scheduled off-days for the Nats, though they still plan to hold a workout that morning. Patrick Corbin then will start Tuesday’s home game against the Cardinals.

Martinez said they haven’t yet decided who will make the long trip to Tampa for Wednesday’s game against the Yankees. Cade Cavalli is a candidate, but the organization’s top pitching prospect may stay back in West Palm Beach and throw another day.

“He’s going to start one of these games, we just don’t know when yet,” Martinez said. Asked if Cavalli is behind the team’s other starters, the manager said: “No, we’re just kind of easing his way in.”

* Evan Lee entered the 2022 season as one of the Nationals’ better starting pitcher prospects, and on June 1 he made his major league debut, allowing two runs in a 3 2/3-inning start against the Mets at Citi Field.

This spring, though, the Nats are going to treat Lee strictly as a reliever, according to Martinez.

The 25-year-old spent most of the summer and fall on the injured list with a left flexor strain, then was dropped from the 40-man roster after the season. Healthy again, he’s back in big league camp and now focused on pitching only one or two innings at a time, competing for a spot in the Nationals’ bullpen.

“We’re looking for a couple left-handed relievers, and he’s in the mix for sure,” Martinez said. “He threw the ball really well today (in live BP). The other day, he threw the ball really well. That’s very encouraging.”

The only left-handed relievers on the Nationals’ 40-man roster right now are Matt Cronin and Jose Ferrer, neither of which has pitched in the majors yet. Lee joins Alberto Baldonado, Anthony Banda, Francisco Perez and veteran Sean Doolittle as lefty relievers invited to camp off minor league deals, with a shot for any of them to make the Opening Day roster.

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