Alex Gordon walked to the plate for the 4,906th time as a big-leaguer. More than 40,000 people screamed. A playoff game was tied. Man on second base. Two outs. Situations half this tense used to freak him out. He can admit that now.
Gordon held his bat in the air. He stared into the crowd. Deep breath. Shut out the noise. Pretend this is a normal at-bat. It’s a trick he learned from Kevin Seitzer, one of the six hitting coaches the Royals have employed since Gordon’s first day in the majors 8 1/2 years ago. He was a third baseman back then, a hotshot prospect who wore No. 7 and heard comparisons to George Brett before he played his first minor league game.
Baseball cities don’t get to know players like this much anymore. Few places have seen ballplayers grow and endure and conquer like Gordon. Deep breath. Stare into the crowd. Shut out the noise. Normal at bat.
“Back in my young days, I used to really feed off the crowd,” he said. “Maybe I’d get too amped. Try to do too much.”
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Gordon’s path is an irreplaceable reason the Royals made it here, to what will eventually become a 6-3 win over the Blue Jays in the American League Championship Series on Saturday. They now lead the series 2-0, with Game 3 Monday night in Toronto.
But as Gordon stepped into the batter’s box in the seventh inning on Saturday, the result was still in doubt. The Royals had come back from three runs down to tie the score. Incredible. David Price pitched for the Blue Jays. The former Cy Young winner had everything working. He retired 18 straight when the seventh inning began, seven of them by strikeout. Most of the contact he surrendered was weak.
A Royals win would mean control of the series. A loss would give the Blue Jays home-field advantage, with the next three games at the Rogers Centre, with those short fences that amplify the Blue Jays’ often overwhelming power and fans screaming through a long-awaited playoff return in much the same way fans did here last year.
Deep breath. Stare into the crowd. Shut out the noise. Normal at-bat.
“Whenever I try to do too much,” Gordon said, “nothing good happens.”
This had already been a bonkers inning. Ben Zobrist hit a pop-fly into the sky that is an out 999 times out of a thousand. This happened to be the other one, though, and afterward Zobrist and others would say the lucky break lifted something in them. Eric Hosmer singled, scoring Zobrist. Cain scored on a groundout. Mike Moustakas singled, scoring Hosmer. Salvador Perez struck out.
This is how Gordon came to the game’s most crucial at-bat. He has always been among the Royals’ most focused players. Always among their hardest workers. This journey matters to him in a very personal way.
The Royals lost 106 games the year they drafted him. Now they are in the playoffs for a second straight year. He is an enormous part of that, an induction to the team’s Hall of Fame a virtual certainty. All that’s left are moments like this, achievements people will remember. His teammates can see that.
“He’s been here a long time,” said pitcher Greg Holland, a longtime teammate. “He’s been on some (crappy) teams, too. So it’s like he sees the end of the tunnel, almost.”
Price started him off with a curveball. This was the Royals’ 24th plate appearance, and only the second Price started with a curveball. Everything was on the table. Gordon took it, low. The crowd cheered. Deep breath. Stare into the crowd. Shut out the noise. Normal at-bat.
Gordon would repeat that routine six more times. Price would throw 96 mph fastballs, and changeups in the mid-80s. The count went full. This was the 14th time these two faced each other. Gordon had just three hits. None of those mattered like this one, though, and Price’s touch had left him just a little bit because his eighth pitch to Gordon was a fastball that split the plate.
Gordon focused on shortening his swing against Price, both a sign of respect for the pitcher’s talent and a recognition of the situation. His swing came quick, and simple, and sent the ball shooting into the right-field gap. Moustakas scored. The Royals led. They would win.
Kauffman Stadium went as loud as it had been all day, emotion shooting through the place, and then the damnedest thing happened — Gordon stepped forward, punched the air as hard as he could, and screamed into the noise.
“Saw Alex Rios do it the other day,” Gordon joked. “I tried to be like him.”
There is more to it than that, of course. This may or may not be Gordon’s last season with the Royals, but either way, he is 10 years into his pro career and understands the preciousness of these opportunities.
Gordon normally goes about his work with all of the outward enthusiasm of a lamp post. In the beginning, when he struggled, he took heat for this. Some fans thought he didn’t care. People who knew him, though, they knew that, if anything, the opposite was true. There was an obsessive drive inside him that overwhelmed emotion, and when things went wrong, he often didn’t know how to cope.
He’s gotten better at that. Much better. Some of that is Seitzer’s guidance, some advice from other coaches and players, but most of it is an extremely talented athlete finding his legs.
But through the whole process — from golden prospect to bust to position switch to franchise player — Gordon has kept that steady expression. As much as anything else, it is his defining characteristic as a ballplayer. On a team full of frat boys, he’s the one who stays in on the weekends.
So that punch, that scream ... that’s the kind of thing that makes his friends and teammates know what this means to him.
“You don’t get too many words out of Gordon, let alone emotion,” Cain said.
“No, never, not at all,” Escobar said.
“I’ve played with him since July of 2010,” Holland said. “And I’ve never seen him do anything like that.”
Holland is a good person to speak on this. Including the playoffs, he saved 152 games for the Royals before his elbow finally gave out last month. He blew only 16. It is the kind of job that requires control of the moment. Some guys shut it out (Wade Davis), and some guys let it burn (Perez). But they have to control that.
Holland compares Gordon’s knack here to Derek Jeter. Gordon hit a walk-off home run against the Twins last August that helped the Royals’ run into the playoffs, and he had the two-out hit in the bottom of the ninth of Game 7 of the World Series that kept them alive against Madison Bumgarner.
Clutch hitting is a complicated thing, often misunderstood, but Gordon has performed in moments that would overwhelm a man who couldn’t control those emotions. Saturday is only the most recent example.
“You know you can only think about doing your job and not 40,000 people, 29 years, or 30 since we won a (championship),” Holland said. “If you start to think about those things, if you’re not controlling your emotions, you’re probably not controlling your body. You see Gordo, he’s always thinking about what needs to be done.”
Luke Hochevar has known Gordon longer than anyone else in this room. He was the Royals’ first-round pick the year after Gordon, and they debuted in the big leagues the same year. Hochevar said he could only remember seeing his friend emotional on a baseball field one other time. That was the hit off Bumgarner last year.
The standard, then, is high enough at face value. But if you watch the video of that hit, you see a much more subdued reaction from Gordon. He holds his fist up, shakes it, mouths let’s go toward his teammates. That’s it.
What he did on Saturday was different. More intense. This was a punch that would’ve knocked a man out, not a shake that would’ve woken him up. His teammates saw it. They don’t forget moments like this. Neither will a lot of Royals fans.