By VICTOR FLORES
The Idaho Falls Chukars’ best starting pitcher was a scrawny second baseman six years ago.
That pitcher, Derek Gordon, is currently listed at 6-foot-6 and 215 pounds. Before graduating from Lincoln (Neb.) Southeast High School, he stood 5-foot-11.
A position shift is a small part of Gordon’s unorthodox route to professional baseball success. His under-the-radar career and famous brother have contributed to one of Gordon’s primary traits: measured expectations.
“I didn’t expect much, and now it’s not like I have super high expectations for myself,” Gordon, 23, said Friday. “But I have a standard I set for myself. I want to go out and compete and have the best chance to win.”
In high school, Gordon knew he wasn’t a phenom like his older brother, Alex, an MLB all-star who was chosen second overall by the Kansas City Royals in the 2005 amateur draft. So Gordon chose to play for Missouri’s Park University of the NAIA.
Park’s coaches recruited Gordon to play second base and pitch, but when the season approached, the slender Gordon stood 6-foot-4. The Pirates opted to move Gordon to the outfield in addition to his pitching duties.
The next year, Gordon and his coaches agreed he’d exclusively pitch. He finished his Park career with a 3.35 ERA and 172 strikeouts in 212 innings pitched.
That success didn’t net him a minor league contract. Luckily for Gordon, he knew Bill Sobbe, the pitching coach for the independent Kansas City T-Bones. Sobbe set up a pitching session in front of T-Bones manager John Massarelli in June 2014. The team signed Gordon days later.
His ERA was 6.49 in 14 games for the T-Bones.
Gordon’s family was full of Royals fans even before Alex and their cousin, Jake Kuebler, were drafted by the franchise (Kuebler played 23 games for the Chukars in 2010). Gordon’s parents even named his older brother, Brett, after Kansas City legend George Brett.
The Royals cemented Gordon’s fandom this year.
In January, Gordon was driving to his cousins’ house to play catch. On the drive, he received a phone call. It was J.J. Picollo, the Royals’ vice president/assistant general manager for player personnel. Kansas City had signed Gordon, Picollo said.
After Gordon hung up, he pulled over to the side of the road.
“I was shaking,” Gordon said. “I was so excited.”
Gordon was a mid- to late-inning reliever for the T-Bones, but the Royals asked him to be a starter. In nine starts for Idaho Falls, Gordon’s ERA is 4.34, which would be better if not for the seven earned runs he allowed against Helena on Aug. 9.
On the season, Gordon has 44 strikeouts and 14 walks. His success has less to do with his fastball velocity (which sits in the high 80s) than his command and ability to throw offspeed pitches for strikes.
“I think he’s learning how his body feels two, three times through the lineup,” Chukars pitching coach Jeff Suppan said. “He’s a smart guy. He learns his stuff, and I think that’s what’s helped him.”
Gordon’s name is almost always preceded by “Alex’s brother.” It defines his baseball persona. Gordon discusses his brother with an aggravated admiration, but he harbors no ill will. Alex works too hard for Gordon to feel that way.
Gordon hopes he’ll be Alex’s teammate in the not-so-distant future. He certainly doesn’t want to face him.
Gordon’s expectations are measured, after all.
“I want him to get a little older, maybe have a little less energy in his legs,” Gordon said with a laugh. “Maybe I can sneak something by him. Right now, I don’t think that’s possible.”
Left-handed reliever Nick Green was promoted from the Chukars to the Single-A Lexington Legends on Friday.
Green, 24, had a 3.52 ERA in 15.1 innings for Idaho Falls this season with seven walks and 15 strikeouts. He also had a 3.52 ERA in 15.1 innings for the Chukars in 2014.
Green, a Salt Lake City native, was selected by the Royals in the 10th round of the 2014 MLB draft.
Chukars catcher Pedro Gonzalez has not played since July 25 against Orem while dealing with shoulder irritation. He’s day-to-day, the Chukars said, and is being re-evaluated this weekend.
“He’s getting close,” Chukars manager Justin Gemoll said Friday. “Hopefully we’ll get him back here soon, once he feels better swinging the bat and that kind of thing.”
With the addition of Luis Lara, Gonzalez is one of four catchers for Idaho Falls, so the team does not want to rush Gonzalez back.
Gonzalez, 23, is hitting .328/.403/.552 (batting average/on-base percentage/slugging percentage) in 67 plate appearances this season.
LHP Matt Portland
On July 9, Portland’s ERA ballooned to 7.88 after allowing three earned runs in 1.1 innings against Ogden. The rookie reliever has pitched 13.1 innings since then, giving up one earned run. His ERA now sits at 3.38 for the season.
Portland, 21, hasn’t merely benefited from batted ball luck, either. The 17th-round draft pick walked three batters in those 13.1 innings since the July 9 outing, where he issued three walks. On the season, Portland has walked seven batters while striking out 22 in 21.1 innings.
OF Cody Jones
When the second half began, Jones had settled in nicely as Idaho Falls’ regular center fielder and leadoff man. But the rookie has fallen into a slump the last two weeks.
Since July 31, Jones has gone 9 for 44 (.205 batting average) with five walks and nine strikeouts. The sixth-round draft pick’s .326 batting average going into the July 31 game against Ogden has dropped to .285 through Saturday.