Brian Gordon’s car ride from Allentown, Penn., to New York was surreal on Tuesday night. So surreal. There have been dozens of journeys in Gordon’s career that, frankly, ended up being trips to nowhere. So Tuesday’s trip, a trip with a tangible destination in Yankee Stadium, numbed Gordon.
Gordon has been stranded in the Minor Leagues since 1997, a tedious, twisting career that saw him fail as an outfielder for a decade before deciding to try and climb to the Major Leagues as a pitcher. Good luck with that career strategy, right? But, shockingly, he persevered and wiggled into the Majors to pitch three games with the Texas Rangers in 2008.
Now Gordon’s story of persistence and dedication has taken another detour since he has agreed to a contract with the Yankees and is a candidate to start against the Rangers on Thursday. Gordon, who was 5-0 with a 1.14 earned run average for the Phillies’ Class AAA Lehigh Valley IronPigs, had an opt out clause in his deal and exercised it. The Yankees will soon announce his signing.
“This has been very emotional for me,” Gordon said. “I’m really looking forward to helping the Yankees. It feels funny to even say that, that I’m a Yankee. It’s a special moment.”
When Gordon, 32, and his agent communicated with Yankee officials, he was told to travel to New York and to prepare as if will start on Thursday. The Yankees have said that Hector Noesi, who has been impressive as a reliever with a 1.76 E.R.A., and David Phelps, who is 4-4 with a 2.95 E.R.A. at Class AAA Scranton, were candidates to be Thursday’s starter, too.
“I don’t know if it’s 100 percent,” said Gordon, about the likelihood that he will face his old team in his first career start. “I was told to be mentally prepared to start on Thursday. That could change.”
While the Yankees have spoken glowingly of their pitching prospects, their best prospects aren’t ready to start (Manny Banuelos and Dellin Betances) at the Major League level yet or aren’t pitching well (Andrew Brackman). If the Yankees had a pitcher with Gordon’s glossy statistics at Scranton, they would surely start him on Thursday. Instead, the Yankees swooped in to add Gordon and give him a chance. He has been the best pitcher in the International League with 56 strikeouts and 7 walks in 55 1/3 innings.
What can the Yankees expect from a converted outfielder who has never made more than 11 starts or pitched more than 78 innings in a season? Gordon stressed that he will throw strikes and he will use his repertoire of six pitches to keep hitters off-balance. Gordon throws a four-seam and two-seam fastball, a split-finger fastball, a slider, a curveball and a recently added cut fastball. The right-hander’s fastball hovers from 89 to 91 miles per hour.
Gordon, who batted .275 with 119 homers in 1,206 games in the Minors, said he was always uncomfortable against pitchers who were unpredictable. Because Gordon was stifled by pitchers who were adept at mixing their pitches, he has used that approach in trying to stifle hitters.
“I do my best to work in different combinations and try to keep hitters off-balance,” Gordon said. “Being an ex-hitter, I know what got me. I have to pitch that way. I’m not going to blow anyone with velocity.”
Whether or not Gordon succeeds with the Yankees, he has overcome incredible obstacles to even dent their roster. As a 17-year old, Gordon was drafted in the seventh round by the Arizona Diamondbacks in 1997. Gordon figured he would be a Major League outfielder within a few years, but that path was cluttered. He averaged almost a strikeout a game as a hitter and lasted six lonely seasons with Arizona. Then Gordon spent two seasons with the Angels before joining the Astros in 2006.
After Gordon’s first season with Houston’s Class AAA Round Rock, he asked Jackie Moore, his manager, if he could switch to pitching. Moore gave Gordon permission and Gordon ended up working with Hall of Famer Nolan Ryan. Ryan told Gordon that it was imperative that he have fastball command or he would never get a chance in the Majors. Gordon followed that advice.
The Astros released Gordon after one Minor League appearance in 2008. By then, Ryan was the recently-hired President of the Rangers. The Rangers signed Gordon and he crawled into the Majors in his 12th professional season, logging a 2.25 E.R.A. over four innings. Gordon has pitched in the Phillies’ organization for the last two seasons. He is 25-13 with a 3.09 E.R.A. as a Minor Leaguer.
Now Gordon could start against the Rangers on Thursday, which he called “chilling.” As Gordon drove to New York, he said that he always believed that he had the God-given ability to become a Major Leaguer so he never quit. Gordon’s latest baseball ride was surreal, but it was unbelievably cool, too. For once, it was a ride to somewhere.