MacKenzie Gore dominates before the departure of the Padres in extras

MacKenzie Gore dominates before the departure of the Padres in extras

SAN DIEGO — It’s a sunny Sunday afternoon at Petco Park in 2022, and 23-year-old MacKenzie Gore is splitting opposing hitters, looking every bit like the ace-caliber starter the Padres have always envisioned.

That’s certainly how they drafted it half a decade ago. And now that it’s a reality, the circuitous route Gore took to get here seems somehow questionable. So he struggled for a few seasons as the pandemic took its toll on his development. So what?

Gore is in the big leagues now, and it looks like the southpaw is here to stay. In eight outings, he boasts a 1.71 ERA and is the presumptive No. 1 favorite for the National League Rookie of the Year award. On Sunday afternoon, Gore delivered his best start yet, pitching seven scoreless innings before Trent Grisham hit a home run off the right field foul post to seal a 4-2 win over the Pirates in 10 sleeves.

“Man, he’s kinda good,” Padres manager Bob Melvin said of Gore. “It looks like he’s even getting more thrifty.” Now he throws shots, he deepens games, where we can mentally push him a little further. He came out of the bullpen once. I don’t know what more you can ask of him.

The Padres have dreamed up big things for Gore since the night they drafted him third overall in 2017. By the end of the 2019 season, he was baseball’s top pitching prospect. Then came the struggles, the setbacks, Gore’s complete inability to master his fastball and repeat his mechanics.

The circumstances were unprecedented, of course. He spent 2020 pitching at another training site at the height of the pandemic. That’s when things started falling apart on him. It took Gore a year and a half to put everything back together. But he hastens to say that he is better off.

“Going through what I’ve been through, it just makes where you’re a lot more comfortable now,” Gore said. “The higher I ride here, the more comfortable I feel.”

Gore, who had not completed six runs until his last start, completed seven on Sunday. He struck out nine and allowed only two hits. It wasn’t unreasonable to think he could get the eighth.

“We always want to go a little longer,” Gore said with a wry smile.

“I told him after the seventh, ‘You’ll see 9s at some point if you throw economically like that,'” Melvin said.

Melvin instead called out Nabil Crismatt, who gave up two runs in the eighth as the Pirates tied the game. This set the stage for Grisham’s heroic exploits two rounds later.

With the autorunner on second base, Grisham squared twice, but Pirates right-hander Chris Stratton threw both shots outside the strike zone. After working a favorable 2-0 tally himself, Grisham was given the go-ahead to walk away. He took advantage of it, spinning on a misplaced fastball from Stratton. As the ball latched onto the corner of right field, Grisham stood frozen in the batter’s box, wanting the ball fair.

“I thought it was a foul,” Grisham said. “I was just sitting there waiting to see if he hit the foul post or not.”

“I’m a little surprised he really swayed,” Pirates manager Derek Shelton said. “He’s probably one of the best bunters in the game. But he got taken off and he ended up kicking the ball out of the stadium.

It was Grisham’s second home run for the Padres. (And, oddly enough, his first at Petco Park. He left the Giants in San Francisco in 2020 after a pandemic-related cancellation forced the Padres to play a home game at Oracle Park.)

The start also gave the Padres their 30th win of the season, tying a franchise record for fewest games to reach that mark. They did so in their award-winning campaign in 1998 and in each of the past two seasons as well.

Of course, the 2020 and 21 seasons went by — at different stages — in part because the Padres hadn’t started pitching. This year, they might have the deepest starting lineup in baseball. The emergence of Gore is a big part of why.

“He just does it with a lot of confidence,” Melvin said. “He’s back to where he was when he signed. … More than anything, it’s just the calm and the way he goes about his business.

Indeed, MacKenzie Gore is back. The same goes for the Padres’ long-term visions of a rotation with Gore at center.

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