You hear it all the time…”Game Changer.” It seems to be the catch phrase of the new millennium in professional sports, especially in the MLB. You hear it associated with guys like Albert Pujols, Josh Hamilton, and more recently with super rookie phenoms Bryce Harper and Mike Trout. You’ve even heard it with a few Dodger players, guys like Matt Kemp and Clayton Kershaw. And last year we heard it with another up-and-coming young Dodger player… a lot – Dee Gordon.
Anyone who has had the opportunity to watch Dee play has undoubtedly seen some of his stellar, if not impossible plays on defense; the kid can flat out cover some ground anywhere within 50 yards of shortstop. Granted, he has also made some bonehead errors, some of which leave you scratching your head, but hey, the kid is only 24 years old and in his first full season in the Bigs (having been called up mid way through the 2011 season to replace the injured Rafael Furcal); and, as expected, he struggled a bit and was sent back down to Triple-A for a few weeks but was quickly recalled by the Dodgers.
Although his defense can be downright dazzling at times, Dee’s true strength is his blazing speed, and it is this that attached that catch phrase “game changer” to him. We saw it immediately – whenever Gordon got on base, he immediately got into the opposing pitcher’s (and catcher’s) head. Guys batting behind him immediately started seeing a lot of fastballs with pitcher’s hoping against hope to catch him stealing, usually in vain. In the 56 games in which Gordon appeared in 2011, he stole 24 bases in 31 attempts – including home. In fact, on July 1, 2011, he became only the second Dodger player in the 120+ year history of the franchise to steal second, third and home in the same inning, joining Harvey Hendrick who did it in 1928. (Former Dodger Jayson Werth also did it in 2009 while a member of the Phillies).
And then there’s 2012. With high hopes (and expectations) squarely on Gordon’s shoulders as the (now) everyday shortstop for the Dodgers, Gordon has struggled… mightily. Sure, he is still as fast as he ever was, but as the leadoff batter in the Dodgers line-up, he simply hasn’t gotten on base very often. In the 67 games that Gordon has appeared in thus far in 2012, he has a dismal OBP of .272 which, quite frankly, would land any MLB player back in the Minors. But Dee Gordon’s number one fan and the guy who believes in him more than anyone else in the world (perhaps even more than even himself) just so happens to be a guy named Don Mattingly. As bleak as things have been for Gordon and even after benching Dee for four games and dropping him to the number 8 hole in the line-up for two weeks (something that Gordon jokingly called ‘detention’), Mattingly made it clear the Dee Gordon needs to be in the lead-off role because he is (you guessed it)… a game changer. “For us to be successful, Dee needs to be in the lead-off spot,” Mattingly told reporters during a recent pre-game interview.
I have heard the hue and cry of fans and the media to drop Dee in the line-up or even send back down to Triple-A to “find himself” and I would be lying if I said that both haven’t crossed my mind, but like Mattingly, I am one of (apparently) very few who feel that Dee needs to stay right where he is in the Big leagues. He needs to learn how to become a Major League shortstop and a Major League hitter and I simply do not believe that he can do so in the Minors.
After experiencing a painfully 0 for 17 slump in the previous four games, Gordon showed us on Saturday why the game changer label belongs to him, in spite of having an average that has hovered around the Mendoza line all season long. On Saturday against the crosstown rival Angels, Gordon led off the game with a single, promptly stole second base, took third on an infield chopper to Angels first baseman Albert Pujols by Jerry Hairston Jr. when Pujols unwisely opted to try to throw out Gordon advancing to third instead of taking the sure out at first base. Pujols’ throw hit the sliding Gordon on the back and caromed away, thus allowing Gordon to score on the Pujols error and moving Hairston over to second base. Hairston would eventually score on yet another error, this one by Angels shortstop Eric Aybar. The Dodgers came away with two charity runs (one earned) in the top of the first inning solely because Gordon was once again a game changer.
Gordon then led off the 6th inning with a line drive triple over the head of Angels left fielder Mark Trumbo and scored moments later when Hairston singled off of the glove of Angels second baseman Maicer Izturis and the Dodgers hung on to beat the Angels by a score of 3-1, with Dee Gordon having been involved (in one way or another) with all three Dodger runs.
Was Dee Gordon a Game Changer in this one? Absolutely… just as I expect he will be in many more Dodger victories.
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(Author’s note: The Dodgers have had four walk-off hits this season, two of them by Dee Gordon).