With emphasis on first-pitch strikes, Gore dominates Yankees

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. – MacKenzie Gore faced 21 batters today, against a Yankees lineup that included a number of regulars including Gleyber Torres, Anthony Rizzo and Giancarlo Stanton. He threw a first-pitch strike to 17 of them, including 12 of the first 13 who stepped to the plate at The Ballpark of the Palm Beaches.

“That’s beautiful,” the Nationals left-hander said when informed of the stat.

“Love it,” manager Davey Martinez responded.

It’s a simple maxim of pitching, and it applies to everyone: Throw strike one. But it felt especially important today for Gore, who had slogged his way through a few uninspired starts this spring and entered this one determined to right the ship.

How important was it to Gore’s chances of success this afternoon? It produced the following pitching line: six innings, two hits, zero runs, one walk, eight strikeouts on 81 pitches. The outcome of the game – a 5-2 exhibition win over the Yankees in front of the lone sellout crowd of the spring here – may not matter. But the performance most certainly did to the Nationals starter.

“I feel good,” he said. “That was a big one, a big step in the right direction. We’ve just got to build off this one.”

Gore was quite down on himself after his last start, in which he was roughed up by the Astros for five runs on nine hits in four innings. He consistently found himself pitching behind in the count that night, and he entered this one determined not to let that happen again.

“My focus today was first-pitch strikes,” he said. “We were going to go at guys early. And if we don’t get the first pitch, let’s try to get to 1-1. Whatever happens after that, that’s what’s going to happen.”

Gore excelled at it. He started off the first five batters he faced with 0-1 counts, then after a 10-pitch walk of Aaron Hicks enjoyed another run of seven consecutive first-pitch strikes.

Most of those first pitches were fastballs, though he mixed in a few breaking balls and changeups as well. And by getting into that advantageous position, he was able to keep New York’s hitters guessing what might be coming next instead of being able to sit on another fastball.

“When you’re ahead, the off-speed, they have to respect it,” Gore said. “And the fastball’s better. So we got some swings and misses on fastballs, or takes on fastballs late. Usually when you’re ahead, you can throw more off-speed. But we were also able to get back in counts. They have to respect off-speed, and then the fastball’s that much better.”

Gore’s fastball registered 93-96 mph, perhaps a tick below what he showed earlier this spring but by no means ineffective. The only Yankees to make solid contact off him were Oswaldo Cabrera, who singled to left in the second, and Carlos Narvaez, who doubled in the fifth. Everything else was tapped into the ground, lofted high in the air or missed altogether.

“Today I told him: ‘You can’t get upset,’” said Martinez, who was concerned how tough on himself Gore was after his last start. “‘You’ve got to go out there and have fun. Pound the strike zone. You don’t have to throw 98, but you have to throw strikes.’ When he does that, he’s good.”

With camp winding down, this represented Gore’s final Grapefruit League start of the spring. His next turn in the schedule actually coincides with an off-day, so he will be pushed back and pitch along with fellow starter Trevor Williams in Tuesday’s final exhibition at Nationals Park (coincidentally, also against the Yankees).

After that, it counts. Gore is lined up to start the third game of the season, April 2 against the Braves. It will be his long-awaited Nationals debut. And if it bears any resemblance to today’s start, it will set a decidedly upbeat tone for his first season in D.C.

“The other ones are over with. This is the one in front of me,” he said. “It is nice to have some success.”

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