Through first two starts, Gore pitching like Nats' stopper

DENVER – Far be it for anyone to anoint this kind of title upon anyone this early in the season, let alone a 24-year-old who has made only two starts for the organization since his acquisition last summer. But if we want to consider this literally, there’s really no question about it: MacKenzie Gore has been the Nationals’ stopper.

The team has won only two of its first eight games. And the winning pitcher in both of those games has been Gore, who followed up his impressive debut against the Braves with an equally strong performance Friday night in the Nats’ 10-5 victory over the Rockies.

Gore stopped a two-game losing streak to begin the season. And now he’s stopped a four-game losing streak that went all the way back to his last start. That seems to make him worthy of the title, right?

“I think everybody here is capable of doing that,” he insisted. “We can win. We played really good today, we played really good the other day when I pitched. Now we need to figure out how to do that consistently and build off each other. We won yesterday, so let’s try to win again today. That’s what we’re going to try to get to. Everybody’s capable of being a stopper. It’s just kind of worked out this way so far.”

It’s worked out this way because Gore has been head-and-shoulders better than the other four members of the Nationals rotation. In two starts, he has allowed a total of three runs on eight hits, striking out 12 over 11 1/3 innings. And because of that – plus some well-timed run support from his teammates – he has emerged with two wins in two starts, confirming what the club believed all along in acquiring him as part of last summer’s Juan Soto blockbuster deal with the Padres.

“We saw him playing on another team and what he could be,” manager Davey Martinez said. “He’s healthy and he’s throwing the ball really well for us right now. We’re excited about that, really excited about that.”

Gore wasn’t perfect Friday night. He served up a leadoff homer to Ryan McMahon in the bottom of the second, then issued a two-out walk to Elías Díaz in the bottom of the fourth that set the stage for a two-out RBI single by Ezequiel Tovar moments later.

But those were the only two runs he gave up across six innings, and perhaps evidence of his ability not to let one bad thing snowball into a much worse rally, which is not unprecedented at Coors Field.

“We want to think like this all the time, but at this place you’ve got to throw one pitch at a time, just ’cause one swing can put a crooked number up there. That second walk, that really cost us. But one pitch at a time, and we’ve just got to stop it there.”

Gore had success Friday throwing three different pitches, though it really turned into a two-pitch repertoire once he realized his slider wasn’t breaking effectively in the thin Denver air. Of his 98 pitches in total, 54 were fastballs, 32 of them were curveballs and 12 were sliders (including the one he hung to McMahon for the second-inning homer).

“We stopped throwing the slider; I’m sure you all could tell,” he said. “The curveball, I just had a better feel for getting it where I needed to. It was good, though. Keibert (Ruiz) saw it, and we made the adjustment. That’s big at this place, ’cause it can get ugly quick.”

There’s no more important development for the Nationals’ long-term well-being this season than the growth of Gore and Josiah Gray into trusted starters who will lead the rotation, especially with Cade Cavalli recovering from Tommy John surgery.

Gore is now 2-for-2 with strong starts. Gray struggled in his season opener but bounced back to allow only one run over six innings during Thursday’s frustrating 1-0 loss.

“The big thing for me with what Josiah did yesterday and Gore did today was throw it down,” Martinez said. “The balls that stay up here, they hit them a long way. They both did that well.”

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