As the champagne-fueled party raged in the center of the clubhouse, Alex Gordon clutched a bottle in his right hand and disappeared to a corner of the room. He slid under a piece of heavy plastic, protecting lockers from spillage and spray, and slipped away from the mayhem. For a moment, Gordon paused by his locker. Then he removed a drenched shirt and put on something dry.
A moment later, he slipped back under the plastic, cradled the bottle and headed out to find his family. He desired a tamer scene.
“It’s kind of the same,” Gordon said.
On a cool Wednesday night at Kauffman Stadium, the Royals fought off the Houston Astros in a decisive Game 5 of the American League Division Series, scoring a 7-2 knockout and a second straight berth in the American League Championship Series, where they will face the Toronto Blue Jays. Gordon, the stoic face of a franchise and the steady hand of the clubhouse, was at the center of it all. He roped a ground-rule double to right in the bottom of the fifth, igniting a game-turning three-run rally. He made an fantastic sliding catch in the top of the sixth, chasing a baseball into foul territory and stealing an at-bat from Houston second baseman Jose Altuve.
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If this indeed is Gordon’s final season as a Royal — a question that will take center stage this offseason — Gordon made sure that the end did not come in the ALDS.
“He’s meant a lot to this franchise,” Royals owner David Glass said, his blue shirt drenched in champagne as he stood amidst the party. “But he hasn’t changed. Alex is the same kid that he was from the very beginning.”
When the season is over, Gordon will face the biggest decision of his life. It’s coming soon enough. Gordon possesses a $12.5 million player option on the back end of his four-year contract, the one that has already paid him $37 million since 2012. More likely, Gordon can decline the option and enter free agency, offering his talents to baseball’s lavish market.
For months, Gordon has declined to discuss his decision publicly. But it looms as one of the great questions of the impending offseason. Glass says Gordon is the “kind of guy that you’d want your daughter to bring home and date.” Club officials adore Gordon’s work ethic and his status as a leader the club's young players. But how much will sentimentality matter in contract negotiations?
So as the Royals arrived at Kauffman Stadium on Wednesday afternoon for a winner-take-all Game 5, it led to the obvious question: Would this be Gordon’s final game as a Royal? For the moment, of course, the answer is no. The question can wait. Gordon made sure of it.
The first moment came in the bottom of the fifth, with the Royals trailing 2-1. With Salvador Perez at first, Gordon fought back from an 0-2 count against Astros starter Collin McHugh and barreled an 87-mph cutter toward the gap in right. The baseball rocketed off maple — Gordon’s Louisville Slugger: Model 6174H — and sailed deep into the night sky, a white pearl shimmering in the lights of Kauffman Stadium’s fountains. As Gordon sprinted toward first, Houston right-fielder George Springer gave chase, turning and sprinting toward the warning track.
The baseball and Springer would arrive within milliseconds. The baseball won the race. Kauffman Stadium erupted into a wall of noise as Gordon trotted into second with a ground-rule double that sent Perez to third base. That set the stage for Alex Rios, who would add a two-run double for a 3-2 lead. The Royals never trailed again.
“Down a run there,” said second baseman Ben Zobrist, “that’s huge.”
Minutes later, with the Royals leading 4-2 in the sixth, Gordon charged hard from left field and made a sliding catch near the foul line to retire Altuve. The catch was patented Gordon — a four-time Gold Glove winner going to the ground and coming up with the baseball. It was, his teammates said, perhaps his best defensive play since returning from a groin injury in September.
“The crowd definitely helped with that energy," Gordon said, "and the way they were cheering us on, even when we were down. So they really picked us up and kept us going.”
In the moments after the game, after the party had begun, Gordon returned to the Kauffman Stadium grass. The scene had calmed, and Gordon soaked in the night air and the prolonging of a season. In the weeks since he has returned from a groin injury, his bat has slumped and he took up residence in the eighth spot in the order, an unusual spot for a three-time All-Star.
There are signs, perhaps, that he is emerging from his slump. In five games against Houston, he batted .214 (four of 17) with a solo homer in Game 3 and the go-ahead RBI in Game 4.
“He battles,” said George Brett, who was holding court on the far side of the Royals clubhouse after the game.
Brett, of course, has seen every iteration of Gordon, from his days as a touted prospect, to his years as an injury-plagued and struggling third baseman, to All-Star rebirth in left field, to his current position as team leader, the quiet pulse in the corner of the clubhouse. For a moment, Brett considered Gordon’s growth, then he looked at the scene in front of him.
“He drove in the winning run the other day and he scored the winning run today,” Brett said. “That’s not bad for a guy hitting eighth.”