Sports

The spotlight is on Josiah Gray and MacKenzie Gore. You are ready for it.

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. – It was the ultimate minor league game, if such a thing even exists. A warm summer night in a California park where an ice cream and a beer cost more than a ticket. The top-tier A’s affiliates from two of baseball’s best farm systems, the Los Angeles Dodgers and the San Diego Padres. No TV. A paid attendance of approximately 3,600 on July 2, 2019.

Not bad for a Tuesday in Rancho Cucamonga.

As was customary at the time, right-hander Josiah Gray (Dodgers affiliate) and left-hander MacKenzie Gore (Padres affiliate) traded. Two aces in the making, throwing 6⅔ (Gray) and seven (Gore) scoreless innings and perhaps wondering if their hitters could provide that any Carry out support against it The Age in the other dugout.

“He was the best pitching prospect in baseball, so I thought, ‘Holy shit,'” Gray said. “It was really, really surreal to be able to match zeros with him.”

What they couldn’t imagine at the time: that in just over three years they would be playing for the same organization, the Washington Nationals. Or that the same Nationals front office that built a World Series champion on the back of a strong pitching staff would ask them to bring about the next one. Or that the couple would serve as a “could be tragic, but hey, that.” These are possibly actual working figures acquired in trade for the core of that championship team (Max Scherzer et al. for Gray et al.; Juan Soto et al. for Gore et al.).

Gray, a curious mind who loves to tinker, and Gore, a meticulous and dedicated pitching student, have different backgrounds and connections to the spotlight, but now they’re in this together. Together, Gray, who will start on Opening Day, and Gore, who will be on the mound for the home opener, hope to be part of a Washington team that could turn things around in 2024 as a new phase of its rebuild takes shape and the second wave of prospects knocks on the door she recently entered. And actually, as they said before the start of the season, they feel good.

“They both made extremely high-profile trades for arguably Hall of Fame-caliber players,” pitching coach Jim Hickey said. “So there’s probably a little more commonality between the two guys and what they’ve been through [you’d think].”

Gray was the type of 13-year-old who was invited to every bar and bat mitzvah in New Rochelle, NY; Who would easily stand up and speak in Sunday school? who, 13 years later as a national player, is probably the team’s most prominent figure, both in the media and in the local community. But he always kept his own circle narrow.

When his mother, Monica, visited him at spring training, she saw the same reserved boy in his adult postgame routine: He cooked dinner with his girlfriend, watched TV and called it a day.

“He won’t change,” she said. “He really isn’t.”

Gray’s affable, reserved nature doesn’t mean he lacks sharpness or that he can’t find other gear on the mound. There’s something about Gray that clicks under pressure that makes sense. He had an offer for a college scholarship. He was drafted in the second round by Cincinnati in 2018, was traded away after one year in the Reds’ system and started 2019 as the 19th overall pick in the Dodgers’ system. Then he was traded again. Even though it’s not his natural MO, Gray has always felt comfortable on bigger stages. It just took a while for the world to give him a chance to play on one.

“I never really understood the concept of, ‘Hey, you’re the guy we want to build around,'” said Gray, who didn’t exactly feel overlooked, more lost in the crowd. “It means a lot to me to be with the Nationals over the last few years, to see how the roster has changed, and I will be one of the pitchers they rely on to make big starts.”

Maybe that’s why Gray feels best when the pressure is on and the tension is at its highest. Why he pitched at least part of a perfect inning in last year’s All-Star Game. Why he was 39 percent better than the MLB average in high-leverage situations and 18 percent worse in low-leverage situations. Why he was one of the rare pitchers who was more effective the third time against the order than the first.

“For me, it’s just knowing I’m a pitch away,” Gray said.

The next step in his development, according to Gray and the coaching staff, is to avoid putting himself in situations where it matters. He can rely on his loyal teammate for this.

“Pitchers have some loose screws.”

If you ask for it The In MacKenzie Gore’s story, you’re usually treated to a few seconds of introspection.

“The behavior doesn’t really change,” right-hander Jake Irvin said. “He has a bit of swagger. … He might scream a little.”

“MacKenzie is balanced,” manager Dave Martinez said. “Until he goes to the hill. Then it’s called “Bloop.” “Martinez acts like he flips a switch, then laughs.

Hickey’s answer is simple: Once that winter, Gore called him from a beach in North Carolina.

“That’s a good caricature of him,” Hickey said. “I could imagine him just sitting on the beach, looking at the water in the sun and just relaxing and not worrying at all.”

Of course, that helps once you get used to the high expectations. Gore has been in the spotlight since he was 15; He was the third pick in the 2017 draft and was once the best pitching prospect in all of baseball. Now he has been tasked with leading a team that won 71 games last year to even greater success. That would be enough to make some people shudder.

But, Gore said, that’s the thing about pitchers.

“Pitchers have some loose screws,” he said.

“That’s probably not a question I can answer,” Gore said. “You’ll have to ask someone else about it.”

The consensus: It means being stable when everything suggests he shouldn’t be, like when he struck out the Padres’ first six batters in his return to San Diego. It’s that unwavering demeanor of finding that extra bit of juice when he needs it, now the adult version of a teenage Gore who falls silent after losses. It’s that dominance; that his elite power, particularly his fastball, rivals that of any starter in baseball, according to FanGraphs’ Stuff+ metric. Still, he finished last season with a 4.42 ERA.

It’s not the great excursions that need to get bigger. It’s the bad trips that don’t have to get so bad anymore.

And that’s what makes him so close to becoming a potential ace.

“It’s a real thing, taking it day by day,” Gore said.

“I thought he could be a really, really good starter, maybe a top-10 guy,” Hickey said. “Anytime you’re left-handed and you throw that hard and you have the skills that he has, it’s something you would consider. But after watching him serve now and sometimes just dominate, there’s no doubt in my mind that he could certainly be in the top 10, if not the top tier [in MLB].”

“The Beauty of Baseball”

Experience a bullpen session and you’ll see what Washington is hoping for. During their hill sessions, Gray and Gore pause every few pitches to look at the iPad for tweaks. They ask questions to employees and each other. When one throws, it often happens that the other jumps over from another part of the field, leans against the fence and watches from behind.

As Gore and Gray are doing, so is the future of the Nationals. They know that. Gore helped Gray gain confidence in his fastball. Gray helped Gore show what a detailed routine means.

According to employees, the adjustments to the game are the next steps. Gore’s best stuff is nasty, but he has to be able to slow his mind enough to throw it consistently. Gray’s best pitches are so good – not to mention he has seven of them – if only he didn’t save the best ones until he needed one last pitch to get out of an inning.

At the end of a bullpen session in mid-March, Gore joins Gray for another bullpen session. He is chatting quietly with a member of staff and seems to be paying little attention to the conversations around him. Every time Gray begins winding, however, his eyes wander over to the mound.

“That’s the beauty of baseball, too,” Gore said. “There are many different personalities. I learn a lot from people who think differently. I think that’s really cool.”

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