SAN DIEGO — Nearly five years ago, when the Padres drafted a skinny 18-year-old out of Whiteville High School in North Carolina, they envisioned nights like this one — nights where MacKenzie Gore blew upper-90s fastballs past the defending champs and strutted coolly around the Petco Park mound like he owned it. They just couldn’t have envisioned the path it would take for Gore to get here.
Once the sport’s top overall pitching prospect, Gore was as heralded as any young pitcher in baseball in 2019. He won MLB Pipeline’s Pitcher of the Year and he entered the ’20 season seemingly on the precipice of a big league breakthrough.
For two grueling summers, that breakthrough remained tantalizingly out of reach. 2020 was a strange year for everyone. It was around then that Gore’s mechanics deserted him. He struggled to throw strikes at the team’s alternate training site. Those struggles lingered into ’21, as Gore plummeted in the prospect rankings.
And then, Gore showed up to Padres camp in 2022 looking very much like the mega prospect he’d once been. In his first backfield sim game, Gore’s fastball hit 99 mph, and he blew away certifiable big league hitters. Quickly, it became apparent that this new-look Gore was not a mirage. Gore had tirelessly worked through those mechanical tweaks during the offseason. He dominated the Cactus League. At long last, he had earned that breakthrough.
“You never want to go through it when you’re going through it,” Gore would say, after making his long-awaited big league debut on Friday night. “But now that we’ve gotten through it, today was awesome. It makes it where all that work and that time — it was worth it.”
Gore’s first start was a memorable one. He was sharp over 5 1/3 innings in the Padres’ 5-2 loss to Atlanta at Petco Park. Gore allowed two runs on three hits and two walks, leaving to a standing ovation with the game tied in the sixth before the Braves ultimately won a battle of the bullpens.
“You can’t draw it up any better, other than a win,” Gore said. “But walking off the field with an ovation like that, in front of the home crowd — it was awesome.”
Gore boasts a legitimate four-pitch mix, with three offspeed offerings that he can generally count on as out pitches. But in his big league debut, it was all about the fastball. Gore threw heaters with 53 of his 73 pitches, to much success.
The first batter Gore faced was Ozzie Albies, and he blew a 96 mph fastball past him to record his first career strikeout. In the second inning, Gore dotted 97 mph paint on the outside corner to retire Adam Duvall.
Eventually, the Braves’ hitters began to sit on Gore’s fastball, and a few of them managed to square it up. Albies took Gore deep with two outs in the third. Austin Riley doubled and scored on a Marcell Ozuna single in the fourth. But Gore just kept attacking. It’s been his M.O. lately.
“That’s what you look for in a young pitcher,” said Padres manager Bob Melvin. “When you get some guys out there, how he responds to that. Pretty similar stuff to what we saw all spring.”
So, what’s next for Gore? It stands to reason that Gore would receive at least one more big league start with Mike Clevinger and Blake Snell on the injured list. Clevinger will make at least one more rehab appearance before he rejoins the Padres.
“We’ll just take it how it goes,” Melvin said prior to Gore’s start. “In the big leagues, performance plays. If you perform, you find a way to stay in the rotation.”
If that’s the case, Gore certainly made a strong case. In fact, he’s been making a strong rotation case all spring — ever since that fabled sim game on the first day of camp.
“It was like night and day different from what we’d seen the year before,” said Joe Musgrove, who was in attendance. “And not only the stuff. The way he carries himself, and the confidence he has this year that it seemed like he was lacking last year is very noticeable.”
Gore likely would’ve been a part of the Padres’ season-opening rotation, if not for the last-minute Sean Manaea trade. Instead, he was the next man up. When Snell landed on the injured list, Gore got the call he’d long been waiting for.
The Padres, of course, could’ve called up Gore last season. Lord knows, they needed starting pitching. They scraped the bottom of the barrel for it, finding starts for castoff free agents and fringe roster players. Externally, there was a clamor for Gore. He was, after all, the Padres’ best pitching prospect. Internally, there was a common refrain: Gore hadn’t quite earned it yet.
In a way, that made Gore’s outing on Friday night all the more special. He earned it. And he made the most of it.