SAN DIEGO — It’s a sunny Sunday afternoon in Petco Park in 2022, and a 23-year-old MacKenzie Gore is cutting opponents apart and looking just like the starter the Padres always envisioned.
That’s how they set it up at least half a decade ago. And now that it’s a reality, the detour Gore took to get here feels a little rude. So he struggled for a few seasons as the pandemic wrecked his development. And then?
Gore is now in the big leagues, and it certainly looks like the southpaw is here to stay. After eight appearances, he has a 1.71 ERA and is the presumed early favorite for the National League Rookie of the Year Award. On Sunday afternoon, Gore delivered his best start yet, throwing seven scoreless innings before Trent Grisham hit a walk-off homerun from the foul-post in rightfield to seal a 4-2 win over the Pirates in 10 innings.
“Man, he’s pretty good,” Padres manager Bob Melvin said of Gore. “Looks like he’s getting even more frugal. Now he’s throwing strikes, he’s getting deeper into games where we can mentally push him a little further. He threw once from the bullpen. I don’t know how much more you can ask of him.”
The Padres have had big things in mind for Gore since the night they drafted him third overall in 2017. By the end of the ’19 season, he was the consensus top player in baseball. Then came the struggles, the setbacks, the total inability for Gore to master his fastball and repeat his mechanics.
The circumstances were, of course, unprecedented. He spent 2020 pitching at an alternate training venue amid the height of the pandemic. That’s when things started to unravel about him. It took Gore a year and a half to put everything back together. But he is quick to say that he is better off.
“If you’re going through what I’ve been through, you’ll be much more comfortable now,” Gore said. “The more I stand here, the more comfortable I become.”
Gore, who had only completed six innings until his most recent start, crossed through seven on Sunday. He struckout nine and gave up only two hits. It wasn’t unreasonable to think he would get the eighth.
“We always want to go a little longer,” Gore said with a wry grin.
“I told him after the seventh, ‘You’re going to see some 9s at some point if you throw that economically,'” Melvin said.
Melvin instead called for Nabil Crismatt, who gave up two runs in the eighth when the Pirates tied the game. That set the stage for Grisham’s walk-off heroics two innings later.
With the automatic runner on second base, Grisham squared twice for a bunt, but Giants righthander Chris Stratton threw both pitches outside the strike zone. After putting in a favorable 2-0 count of his own, Grisham was given the green light to swing away. He made the most of it by deploying a poorly placed Stratton fastball. When the ball slashed into the right corner of the field, Grisham stood frozen in the batter’s box, aiming the ball well.
“I thought it was wrong,” Grisham said. “I just sat there waiting 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 the ground and he hit 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 ran away from the Giants in San Francisco in 2020 after a pandemic cancellation forced the Padres to play a home game at Oracle Park.)
The walk-off also gave the Padres their 30th win of the season, tying a franchise record for the fewest games to reach that goal. They did so during their pennant winning campaign of 1998 and also during each of the past two seasons.
Of course, the 2020 and ’21 seasons have unraveled — at various stages — in part because the Padres ran out of starting shots. This year they may have the deepest group of starters in baseball. The rise of Gore is a big part of why.
“He just does it with a lot of confidence,” Melvin said. “He’s back where he was when he signed. … It is mainly the calm and the way he does his business.”
Indeed, MacKenzie Gore is back. So is the Padres’ long-term view of a Gore-centered rotation.