Once the shock of the trade wore off – and, yes, it was shocking, given the magnitude of last August’s deal – MacKenzie Gore’s focus shifted to one clear-cut objective: Pitch for the Nationals in 2022.
A resident of the 15-day injured list with elbow inflammation when he was one of six players shipped by the Padres to the Nationals for Juan Soto and Josh Bell, Gore knew he was going to need some time to rehab and build his arm back up. But he believed he’d be ready to make his Nats debut before season’s end.
When it didn’t happen, there were conflicting emotions.
“Yeah, I wanted to pitch,” Gore said this week in an interview for the "Nationals Hot Stove Show" on MASN. “I wasn’t throwing when I got traded, so I wanted to get back out there. That’s the best way to get to know guys. But I also understood we needed to be smart. I needed to be smart. I knew why I got to where I was, so I understood.”
Gore’s rehab wasn’t a failure, by any stretch. He made four September rehab starts for Triple-A Rochester and had no issues with his elbow along the way. But he did feel fatigued in his final outing, one in which he served up three homers in 3 2/3 innings.
Though there was still time to make one start for the Nationals in the season’s final week, the club decided it wasn’t worth rushing him back just for the sake of it. Even if the left-hander felt he still needed to prove something to his new team.
“He wanted to show us why we traded for him,” manager Davey Martinez said at the time. “But I told him: ‘We already know why we traded for you. Our job is to get you healthy and get you ready for next year now. You’re going to pitch a lot for us. Don’t worry about what I think of you. I think highly of you, and I think you’re going to have a really good career for us.”
The Nationals base that thinking on Gore’s pedigree and past performance. The third overall pick of the 2017 draft out of Whiteville High School in North Carolina, he was a top-30 prospect across the entire sport prior to making his major league debut last season.
And Gore’s first two months in the majors did nothing to refute the lofty praise. Nine starts into his career, he owned a 1.50 ERA and 1.063 WHIP while striking out nearly 10.7 batters per nine innings.
Then his elbow started flaring up, and that combined with hitters’ growing familiarity with him led to diminished results: In three of his final five starts before landing on the IL, Gore surrendered six or more runs.
Along the way, he learned something about his ability to compete at the big league level.
“When I do have good stuff, I can get people out,” he said. “But as you get into a season, you have to make adjustments. I think that was part of it, too: They started figuring out what I was doing. I have to adjust and throw pitches in different counts. Little things like that.”
Though he didn’t get a chance to show the Nationals what he could do in a big league game yet, Gore went home for the offseason feeling good about the state of his arm. He’ll report to spring training next month expecting to be a big part of his new team’s Opening Day rotation, hoping to pick up where he left off before getting hurt last summer and prove he was worth being one of the key returns in that emotional trade.
“We’re full-go,” he said. “I got healthy at the end. I just never fully built it up, so we decided what was right. But I’m full-go right now. I’m treating it like a normal offseason, and I’ll be ready for spring.”