The right leg ticked like a metronome, up and down, up and down, into the dirt of the warning track. The pain from the strained groin muscle in Alex Gordon’s left leg left him facedown, unable to rise. He lay horizontal in Kauffman Stadium’s left field, the territory he has mastered as a professional, for three minutes and eight seconds while a John Deere cart arrived to carry him off the field.
The Kansas City training staff helped Gordon to his feet. He could not place weight on his left leg. Aboard the cart, Gordon draped a towel over his head. He pinned his chin to his chest. The crowd managed only a tepid ovation — there went the Gold Glove cornerstone of the organization, the All-Star face of the franchise, the longest-tenured Royal.
“That’s a devastating moment for the team and the organization and the city because he means so much to us and them,” outfielder Jarrod Dyson said.
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A battery of tests awaited Gordon. A preliminary examination revealed the strained groin. Gordon was scheduled to undergo an MRI to determine the amount of damage to the muscle. Gordon heard the muscle pop, but the medical staff indicated the muscle did not detach from the bone.
Manager Ned Yost admitted Gordon could be gone for months, as a severe strain could require Gordon to miss six to eight weeks. The training staff found no injury to Gordon’s knee or ankle. “It’s still going to be awhile,” Yost said.
Gordon’s leg buckled as he tried to track down a well-struck drive by Rays infielder Logan Forsythe in the fourth inning of a 9-7 Kansas City victory. The Royals rebounded with a five-run rally in the fifth to claim the lead. Dyson, his replacement in left field, paid tribute to Gordon by gunning down a runner at the plate.
But the departure of Gordon still cast a cloud over the evening. The players raced into the clubhouse afterward to check for updates. There were no definitive answers. The group could only wait, speculate and hope. They sounded familiar refrains about Gordon’s toughness — and the seriousness of any injury that could remove him from a game.
“If a guy like Gordo is getting carted off the field and he’s not able to walk off, it’s probably not good news,” first baseman Eric Hosmer said. “Because everyone knows how strong of a guy he is, his tolerance for pain. Right now, we just sit back and hope for the best.”
Dyson’s voice cracked a few times as he discussed Gordon’s influence on the team. Their fourth victory in a row was bittersweet.
“The celebration, it was a little weird without Alex Gordon here,” Dyson said. “Knowing he’s hurt, it’s just a devastating injury for us right now.”
The ramifications of a lengthy layoff extend beyond the immediate loss of Kansas City’s hottest hitter. Gordon can become a free agent at the end of the season. He holds a player option for 2016, but rival executives expect him to decline it and test the open market.
If Gordon requires an extended stay on the disabled list, the Royals could be forced to explore options in trades. For now, Kansas City will assemble a platoon of Dyson and rookie Paulo Orlando. Whit Merrifield was removed from his game with Class AAA Omaha as a precaution.
“We feel like we’ve got good depth,” Yost said. “We feel that we can cover it right now with Paulo and Dyson. We feel like we’re in good shape.”
Gordon fell less than 24 hours after one of his best days as a Royal. He recorded seven hits and drove in six runs in Tuesday’s doubleheader. He appeared in the midst of one of his vaunted hot streaks. He entered the game with an .853 on-base plus slugging percentage, his best since his breakout campaign in 2011.
“When he’s going through times of struggle, you know that these stretches like this are right around the corner,” Yost said. “He can get a hit and all of a sudden be as hot as a firecracker for a week, 10 days, two weeks.”
Gordon walked and scored a run in Wednesday’s third inning. In between frames he strapped on his glove and trotted out to left field. The organization asked him to play left field in 2010 because he had failed as a third baseman and floundered as a former top-flight prospect. It was a last resort.
Gordon embraced the shift. He became the game’s finest left fielder. He won his fourth Gold Glove last season. His mantle appeared ready to hold a fifth this fall. He jumps into the stands. He crashes into walls. He plays with abandon, with the sort of passion that swells the heart of his teammates, of his coaches, of general manager Dayton Moore.
“When something like this happens, it’s a little disturbing to everybody,” Yost said.
No obstruction felled Gordon on Wednesday. His own body malfunctioned. The sequence began when starter Jeremy Guthrie floated a cutter over the middle of the plate to Forsythe. Gordon swiveled his hips toward center field and sprinted to the warning track.
The baseball cleared Gordon’s glove. He took two steps on the track. On the second, his left leg buckled as he decelerated. He lunged chest-first into the illuminated scoreboard along the wall. Gordon landed on his chest, ripped off his glove and stayed motionless, save for his right foot kicking the dirt.
“When you see him laying down like that, you know it’s bad,” Dyson said.
Lorenzo Cain ventured over, dug out the baseball and threw toward the infield. Forsythe slid at the plate for an inside-the-park home run. As he rose from the dirt, former Royal David DeJesus pointed toward left field.
A fleet of Kansas City officials raced toward Gordon. Trainer Nick Kenney led the charge, with Yost a step behind.
“What could it possibly be?” Yost asked Kenney.
A series of nightmare scenarios flashed through Yost’s mind. He recalled how Yankees closer Mariano Rivera tore his anterior cruciate ligament shagging flies in 2012. He wondered if Gordon injured his shoulder. He had not noticed anything when the ball initially passed Gordon.
At the wall, Kenney placed a hand on Gordon’s back to greet him. Kenney and Yost rolled Gordon onto his back. Gordon “wasn’t communicating much,” Yost said.
The crowd appeared capable of only anxious chatter. The cart carried Gordon across the outfield toward Tampa Bay bullpen. His teammates watched him leave. Gordon disappeared from sight, the severity of his injury unknown. The ballpark would surge to life as the game continued, but when Gordon exited, the place felt like a tomb.
“Alex gets up from everything,” said reliever Luke Hochevar, Gordon’s closest friend on the team. “I’ve seen him run, mid-stride, full-speed, into a wall, and get knocked down — and he’ll still get up. That’s just the type of player that Alex is. He’s going to get up.
“And he’s not going to be carted off the field if he can walk. So that’s a little scary.”