After Two Years Of Trials And Tribulations, MacKenzie Gore Finally Reaches The Majors
SAN DIEGO—When MacKenzie Gore took the mound for the Padres at Petco Park on Friday night, it was more than just the major league debut of a long-heralded prospect.
It was a return to prominence for a talented young pitcher whose career had been in a free fall for the better part of two years, and another sign that maybe, just maybe, the version of Gore that was once the best pitching prospect in baseball is back.
Gore pitched 5.1 innings with three hits and two runs allowed in a sharp big league debut against the Braves, taking a no-decision in a 5-2 loss for the Padres.
Facing the defending World Series champions, Gore worked quickly and efficiently, pounding 94-98 mph fastballs in the strike zone and throwing 44 of his 73 pitches for strikes. He walked two, struck out three and showed off his athleticism by snagging a pair of comebackers to the mound.
He struck out the first batter of his major league career when he got Ozzie Albies swinging through an elevated 96 mph fastball. He worked out of trouble with runners on, inducing a pair of double-play balls and keeping the ball on the ground with seven groundouts to only two flyouts. He limited hard contact aside from an Albies solo home run in the third, and responded by striking out Albies a second time to lead off the sixth. He got swinging strikes with his fastball and slider and called strikes with his curveball, even while utilizing a fastball-heavy mix.
Gore kept the Padres in the game after they fell into an early deficit and kept the score tied after his offense rallied. After being pulled with one out in the sixth and the heart of the Braves order due up, Gore walked off the mound to a standing ovation.
“You can’t really draw it up any better, other than we win,” said Gore, the Padres No. 4 prospect. “It was a tough loss, but yeah walking off the field to an ovation in front of the home crowd, it was awesome.”
Independent of the result, the mere fact Gore was in the major leagues, holding down one of baseball’s best lineups, was a victory. After two years of trials and tribulations, the 23-year-old lefthander found his way to where many expected him to be.
“You never want to go through it when you’re going through it, but now that we got through it, today was awesome,” Gore said. “It makes it where all that work and that time was worth it.”
Gore’s journey was a long one, full of peaks and valleys more extreme than those of even the most volatile pitching prospects.
The short version is this: Gore was the top-ranked pitching prospect in baseball entering the 2020 season, but his delivery fell out of sync during the coronavirus shutdown and only got worse when he reported to summer camp and the alternate training site. His mechanics regressed, his velocity dropped precipitously and his command disappeared, forcing the Padres to skip him over for a callup in favor of younger, lower-ranked pitching prospects like Luis Patiño and Ryan Weathers when they needed reinforcements.
Once minor league play resumed in 2021, Gore made it through only six starts at Triple-A El Paso before the Padres demoted him to their complex in Peoria, Ariz. to rebuild his delivery. He re-emerged two months later, slowly making his way up the lower levels of the minors with mixed success.
In a span of two years, Gore went from the best pitching prospect in baseball to one of the game’s biggest enigmas. While young pitching prospects going sideways in their development is nothing new—see Lucas Giolito and Tyler Glasnow—the rapid nature of Gore’s decline led to legitimate questions about whether he still possessed the ace potential he had previously shown.
It wasn’t just Gore’s mechanics that were off. Mentally, after two years of struggles, he was drained.
“It’s tough. You’re going out to compete in a game that is riddled with failure everywhere and he’s going out there competing against an opponent, but at the same time there was a period a couple of years ago where he was kind of competing against himself even,” Padres farm director Ryley Westman said. “It’s like you’re going against the guy in the box but at the same time you’re kind of grappling with your own mechanics and confidence.”
The doubts weren’t limited to outsiders. Gore reached a point so low that even he admits he questioned whether he could get back on track.
“I mean there was always some doubt, especially when I was throwing the ball everywhere like that,” he said. “There was some times where it was like I had no idea where the ball was going and there was definitely doubt. But we always thought at some point we could get through it. We just didn’t know how long it was going to take.”
To get Gore back on track, the Padres pieced together a multi-pronged effort. Minor league instructors Pete Zamora and Rob Marcello and recently hired major league pitching coach Ruben Niebla all took turns working with Gore, slowly but surely addressing all the areas that needed to be fixed.
There was no one silver bullet that cured all the lefthander’s ails. It was a concerted, months-long effort to rebuild Gore’s athleticism, mechanics and mentality and get him back to a place where he could be the best version of himself.
“To be completely honest with you I think a variety of things went into it,” Westman said. “I think MacKenzie finding out about himself mentally. I think being able to get his body moving the way that he wanted to. I think speed of the delivery. I think just overall mobility and flexibility and getting him back to where he once was. I think he came in and got physically stronger and maybe lost some body mobility.
“But ultimately, truly I think the mentality of the kid speaks a lot. I think he’s seen some adversity and is truly just in a place where he’s confident in himself, knows what he’s got. I think ultimately I would attribute a lot of it to him and his mental state where he’s at.”
It was more than just Padres officials who helped Gore build himself back up. There were nine people he brought to Petco Park for his big league debut: his family, his high school coach and the coach’s wife, and his two best friends growing up.
When he was at his lowest points, those nine people in particular were there to pick him up.
“Mentally it was tough,” Gore said. “A lot of long nights. We were trying to figure stuff out. We didn’t really have an answer right at first. So it was tough, but we got through it. I got a lot of help from people and I wouldn’t be here without them.”
In the Padres’ eyes, Gore’s turnaround began in the Arizona Fall League last year. Statistically Gore struggled in the AFL, surrendering 15 hits and eight earned runs in 11.1 innings with eight strikeouts and six walks.
But his velocity had returned to where it was pre-pandemic, and beyond the numbers, Padres officials saw glimpses of the pitcher who was once the top pitching prospect in the game.
“I think truly we were getting back to ‘Hey, there’s some glimpses of what we saw out of Mac,’ ” Westman said. “Just again the athleticism down the mound … It was that fastball coming back, he’s commanding his pitches, just again the conversations with the kid of him just confident even after some outings that didn’t go the way he wanted in results.
“He was like ‘Hey, I’m feeling it.’ It wasn’t necessarily him kind of grasping like ‘Oh, what do I need to do?’ He knew he was headed in the right direction. That’s a hard thing to do so. I tip my hat to the kid with not just relying on the results but knowing like ‘Hey, my stuff is getting back to where it was.' ”
As important as the physical changes were, it was that mental component that stood out to Padres manager Bob Melvin when Gore arrived at spring training this year. Though he was new to the organization, Melvin had watched plenty of video of Gore from his dominant 2019 season at High-A Lake Elsinore and knew what Gore looked like at his best.
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In Melvin’s assessment, Gore’s final step was to reach a point where he was no longer thinking about his mechanics every time he took the mound.
“It’s never going to be about that,” Melvin said. “The mechanics are what you work on in the bullpen. Then when you go take the mound you just go out there and compete, and I think he realized that. He got some good work last year but came to spring saying you know what, ‘Maybe I gotta get out of my own head and just go out there and start competing like I have my whole life,’ and it showed up from the first day we saw him in spring.”
The results followed. After struggling to piece together more than one good inning at a time in big league camp last year, he strung together three consecutive solid spring training outings before getting hit hard in his final appearance. The real test, though, would come in his return to Triple-A.
When Gore made his first start of the year for Triple-A El Paso on April 9, the entire Padres organization was nervous. The last time Gore took the mound for the Chihuahuas, he lasted 1.1 innings to cap off his disastrous stint at Triple-A and was demoted to the Padres complex within the week. All the talk of his progress during the fall, all the promise he showed in spring training, would be quickly forgotten if everything unraveled once again at the minors’ highest level.
Instead, Gore was as good as ever. He carved through Round Rock’s lineup over five dominant innings, allowing only two hits—both singles—and striking out seven while walking none. Most importantly, he was efficient. He threw 43 of his 63 pitches for strikes, finding the strike zone consistently with all of his pitches.
It was vintage Gore, and the first time the Padres had seen it since 2019.
“It was a thrilling feeling because Mac means a lot to this organization,” Westman said. “I think ultimately if we end up doing this whole thing right, he’s going to mean a lot to that big league club and the city of San Diego, so it was definitely a confidence builder for the organization.”
The Padres added him to their taxi squad in San Francisco three days later, and when Blake Snell was placed on the injured list with adductor tightness, Gore took his place in the rotation.
When Gore took the mound Friday night and held his own against one of baseball’s most dangerous lineups, it was the culmination of a long, painful process two years in the making.
“That I can pitch here, that’s probably what we learned tonight,” Gore said. “I can pitch here.”
It will take more than just two starts for Gore to prove he’s fully back. But for the first time in two years, the talented lefty is having success. He’s succeeding at the game’s highest levels in Triple-A and the majors, showing the stuff and, most importantly, the command that made him such a heralded prospect.
After two years of going backwards, Gore is finally moving in the right direction again.
“As an amateur he had a lot of recognition and coming into professional baseball right away he (had) a lot of success, but this kid, he’s a young kid,” Westman said. “He has so much ahead of him. He’s healthy, the body is moving right and it’s refreshing to acknowledge this kid is still young. He’s somebody that’s been in the news a lot, but his story, there’s so much more out in front of him.”