SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- An Opening Day start is an Opening Day start, even if it comes in October. No one may have anticipated his own more than MacKenzie Gore, who bounced around four levels in 2021 while trying to hone his command.
“There were some jitters, some pre-game jitters like always,” Gore said. “It was 12:30 [at first pitch], so we didn’t have to sit around and wait like usual. But it was a lot of fun.”
Gore threw 88 pitches -- 56 for strikes -- including 11 swings-and-misses. That ability to find the zone consistently may have brought a sigh of relief to the Padres and their fans.
The 22-year-old left-hander opened the year at Triple-A El Paso but posted a 5.85 ERA with 12 walks in 20 innings over six starts. San Diego moved him back to its Arizona facility to hone his mechanics, and Gore didn’t return to game action until Aug. 19 in the Rookie-level Arizona Complex League. He made additional stops at High-A Fort Wayne and Double-A San Antonio, but this AFL assignment will be the biggest test for the new-look Gore.
“The hands aren’t as crazy, so it looks a little different,” said Gore, who struck out three on Wednesday. “The leg kick’s still the same. There’s still a rhythm to the delivery, but the hands are a lot more controlled.”
The stuff was certainly there Wednesday. Of the 11 whiffs -- more than double anyone else’s total in this contest -- five were on four-seamers, three on sliders and three on changeups.
Gore's fastball sat in the mid-90s and touched as high as 98.2 mph in the third inning on the Statcast radar gun, giving him the hardest-thrown pitch of the game. A fifth-inning 97.8 mph heater was second-highest among all Peoria and Salt River pitchers. Perhaps it was no coincidence that both offerings came against Spencer Torkelson, the 2020 first overall Draft pick and the highest-ranked overall prospect in this year’s AFL.
“That guy’s a really good hitter, we all know that,” Gore said. “Some tough at-bats. He had some guys in scoring position, so we had to bear down and get out of there.”
The 98.2 mph offering got Torkelson to bounce into an inning-ending groundout to short, erasing a threat with runners on the corners. But the Tigers' slugger got the last laugh when he swatted a double to left in the fifth that plated Salt River’s only two runs against Gore.
Those two runs -- and some hard-hit balls by Torkelson, Brett Baty, Michael Toglia and Carlos Cortes -- left Gore with something to build on going forward in the AFL. But at least a foundation of moderate success was poured for a southpaw who could use a strong ending to 2021.
“There was some good, and there was also some stuff that could be a little better,” he said. “I’ll sit down and look at that in a couple days, figure it out and get ready for the next one.”
Other big names came out to play Wednesday at Salt River. Fellow Top 100 prospects Bryson Stott (single, double, three walks) and Baty (three singles, walk, hit-by-pitch) reached in all five of their plate appearances for the two sides. No. 6 Mariners prospect Zach DeLoach hit the game’s only homer, a three-run blast to right in the sixth inning that gave Peoria a 5-2 lead.
After Salt River chipped away at the lead and eventually tied the game, it was D-backs prospect Cooper Hummel who got to play hero in his club’s home state. The catcher drew a four-pitch, bases-loaded walk against Braves left-handed reliever Jake Higginbotham that gave the Rafters a 6-5 walk-off win.