MacKenzie Gore dominates before the Padres take off in the extras


MacKenzie Gore dominates before the Padres take off in the extras

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

At least that’s what they thought of half a decade ago. And now that it’s a reality, the detour Gore took to get here feels kind of moot. So he struggled for a few seasons while the pandemic ravaged his development. So what?

Gore is in the big leagues now and it looks like the left-hander is here to stay. He has a 1.71 ERA in eight appearances and is the early favorite for the National League Rookie of the Year Award. On Sunday afternoon, Gore made his best start yet, throwing seven scoreless innings before Trent Grisham hit a walk-off home run from the foul pole in right field to seal a 4-2 win over the Pirates in 10 innings.

“Man, he’s kinda good,” Padres manager Bob Melvin said of Gore. “Seems like he’s going to be even more frugal. Now he’s throwing strikes, he’s getting deeper into games where we can push him a little further mentally. Once he fell out of the bullpen. I don’t know how much more you can ask of him.”

The Padres have envisioned big things for Gore since drafting him third overall in 2017. By the end of season 19, he was the consensus of the top pitchers in baseball. Then came the fights, the setbacks, the utter inability for Gore to command his fastball and repeat his mechanics.

The circumstances were of course unprecedented. He spent 2020 pitching at an alternative training location at the height of the pandemic. That’s when things started to unravel on him. It took Gore a year and a half to put everything back together. But he’s quick to say he’s feeling better.

“After going through what I’ve been through, it’s a lot more comfortable now,” Gore said. “The more I pitch up here, the more comfortable I feel.”

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

“We always want to drive a little longer,” Gore said with a wry grin.

“I told him after the seventh, ‘You’re going to see some 9s eventually if you line up like that economically,'” Melvin said.

Melvin instead challenged Nabil Crismatt, who gave up two runs in heat eight when the Pirates equalized the game. That set the stage for Grisham’s walk-off exploits two innings later.

With the automatic runner on second base, Grisham squared twice to bunt, but Pirate right-hander Chris Stratton threw both pitches outside of the strike zone. After earning a favorable 2-0 lead, Grisham was given the green light to swing away. He made the most of it, flipping over a poorly placed fastball by Stratton. As the ball hooked into the right corner, Grisham stood frozen in the batter’s box, wanting the ball fair.

“I thought it was fishy,” Grisham said. “I just sat there and waited to see if it hit the foul pole or not.”

“I’m a little surprised he actually swung,” said Pirates manager Derek Shelton. “He’s probably one of the better bunters in the game. But it was taken off, and he ended up knocking the ball out of the stadium.

It was Grisham’s second walk-off homer 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 walkoff also gave the Padres their 30th win of the season, setting a franchise record for fewest games to reach that mark. They did so during their 1998 pennant-winning campaign and also during each of the last two seasons.

Of course, the 2020 and 21 seasons unraveled — at different times — in part because the Padres were about to start pitching. They may have the deepest group of starters in baseball this year. Gore’s appearance is a big part of the reason for this.

“He just does it with a lot of confidence,” said Melvin. “He’s back where he was when he signed. … Above all, it’s the calmness and the way he goes about his business.”

In fact, MacKenzie Gore is back. The same is true of the Padres’ long-term visions of a Gore-centric rotation.

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