By Carlos Collazo (BaseballAmerica.com)
Twice before, in 2014 and 2015, the lefthander with the head-turning windup led his Whiteville High team to the North Carolina 1A state championship.
That lefthander, MacKenzie Gore, won the MVP award on both occasions.
After a 9-8 victory against Murphy High this spring, Whiteville again won the state championship. Yet again, Gore led the way and was on the verge of becoming the first three-time championship MVP in state history.
Only he didn’t want it.
Throughout the tournament, Gore, the only senior on the Whiteville team, had received all the attention.
“There were articles before the eastern regionals and state championship,” Gore said, “and it wasn’t, ‘The team we were playing to take on Whiteville.’ It was, ‘The team we were playing to take on Gore.’ ”
So before the game Gore laid it out to head coach Brett Harwood.
“They didn’t get much shine,” Gore said of his teammates. “Before Game 2 on Saturday, I said, ‘Coach, you need to tell those people up there, when we win this thing I don’t want the MVP.’ ”
Harwood told Gore—the best player he’s ever coached and, for his money, the best player to come through a Whiteville program that produced first-round picks Tommy Greene (1985) and Patrick Lennon (1986)—that the vote was out of his hands.
He didn’t tell Gore that, even if he did have a say, he wouldn’t give the award to anybody but the southpaw.
“I knew,” Harwood said. “He was our MVP. There were a lot of kids who were good that weekend, but we’re probably not even there without him.”
Gore’s consistent excellence, selflessness and work ethic helped make him a three-time state champion, the No. 3 overall pick this year by the Padres and, now, the Baseball America High School Player of the Year.
Before Whiteville, Gore was figuring out how to throw a baseball while simultaneously bringing his right knee up above his chest. As most of his middle school peers were learning how to properly take leads off of bases, Gore was developing one of the most athletic windups of the 2017 class.
“I don’t know why I started it,” he said. “Nobody really told me to do it or anything . . . I worked on repeating my delivery, and I was always taught to turn a little bit and show my hip pocket and balance.
“That’s how it started. I did that and I guess it turned into a big leg kick.”
It worked for him, so he left it alone. When he got to high school, so did his coaches.
Whiteville pitching coach Fielding Hammond first saw Gore as a ninth-grader. He had heard about the lefty, but never seen him or his patented leg kick. When he watched a fall bullpen session during Gore’s freshman year, he knew he was something special.
“I’m looking at a kid and I’ve never seen somebody throw like that,” Hammond remembers thinking. “But he’s throwing strikes and it’s coming out of his hand pretty good, pretty sharp.
“I wasn’t about to change anything.”
So Hammond and Harwood left him alone for the most part, when it came to coaching Gore on the field. He was already so good, they figured they would rather leave him be than tinker with anything and risk taking a step backward.
That’s not to say no coaching was done. Hammond credits Harwood with keeping Gore’s work ethic high and creating a team atmosphere that has encouraged and elevated Gore’s natural competitive spirit, from a team perspective first and foremost.
The first time Harwood ever watched Gore—when he was playing youth baseball in Whiteville with Harwood’s sons—that competitive side was obvious.
“He hated losing,” Harwood said. “Even at that age. That’s probably my first time meeting with him and experience of him.”
For Hammond, who is closer to a brother than a pitching coach with Gore, after dating his sister for almost four years, he’s constantly having conversations about what will help him down the road. In the short term, Hammond helps Gore find ways to continuously repeat his delivery.
“In his windup we always have little checkpoints,” Hammond said. “Making sure he’s in line with the plate and his backside is able to come through, stuff like that. And if it’s not, he’ll ask. And that’s an important thing. It’s refreshing to see somebody who’s always asking and wanting to get better.”
After four years of improvement at Whiteville, Gore is the best he’s ever been.
The 6-foot-2 southpaw’s stats jump off the page. He went 11-0 with a 0.19 ERA and allowed just three runs all season, only two of which were earned. Gore used a lethal four-pitch mix to strike out 158 batters over 74.1 innings. Perhaps most impressive, he had the same number of complete games (five) as walks.
During his four years in the North Carolina state playoffs, Gore went 15-0 and allowed just two earned runs in 99 innings. He feeds off of that playoff energy in the same way that he feeds off of the increased attention and scrutiny inherent with dozens of MLB scouts in attendance.
Hammond remembers Gore’s reaction to a large crowd during his first start of the 2017 season.
“He loves it,” Hammond said, “The first start he has against West Columbus, which is a big rival for us, we look and there’s 75 scouts there. And, hell, I’m a little shook.
“And he kind of looks at me in the bullpen and he’s like, ‘This is fun.’”
It hasn’t all been that easy, though. Obviously naturally gifted, Gore didn’t just stumble upon his success. He had to work for it. And he had to realize that he wasn’t, in fact, the best.
Back in August 2016, Gore competed at Petco Park in the Perfect Game All-American Classic, along with the two players drafted ahead of him—Royce Lewis and Hunter Greene—as well as an entire host of talented players. In Gore’s mind, some of those players were better than he was.
“I wanted to be the best player in the country,” Gore said. “And when I played in the (Classic), I wasn’t the best player in the country at that point.
“I just had a lot of work to do.”
That wasn’t much of an issue.
“The biggest thing about MacKenzie, even from when he was a ninth grader, was his drive and his work ethic,” said Whiteville pitching coach Fielding Hammond. “And a lot of that goes back to his parents. They’ve always kept him humble.
“Coach Harwood has always done a good job making him keep that work ethic and keep that drive. I think everything else has kind of followed.”
What followed was 15 pounds of added muscle, which led to increased strength and endurance. Gore improved his velocity. He started pitching more like he would have to at the next level, mixing in offspeed pitches more frequently and on the rare occasions he was behind in counts.
What followed was Gore once again leading Whiteville back to a state championship and, despite his objections, a third state championship MVP award.
So Gore did what any humble, small-town, team-first Whiteville boy would do—what the best player in the country would do.
He gave the award to someone else—Jake Harwood, the coach’s son who picked up the win in the second game of the state championship.
“My time was done,” Gore said. “I didn’t really need an MVP to end it. I just needed a state championship.”
For Coach Harwood, who never felt like he could help Gore on the field any more than he was already helping himself, that moment meant everything.
“It meant to me a lot as a coach,” he said. “It showed that we were doing something right here in Whiteville.”