Reduced to a role that required as much time stretching as it did time on the field during last fall's playoffs, Los Angeles Dodgers infielder Dee Gordon remembers waiting for those rare pinch-running appearances and watching from the dugout, unable to contribute much.
After all, everyone is the same speed when stapled to the bench.
"Terrible," Gordon recalled feeling when asked this week in Minneapolis at the 85th All-Star Game. "It was the worst thing that's happened to me. There were games there that I could have helped us. I believe that. And I couldn't play. It was the worst feeling ever for me. But it made me stronger. It made me work harder. Because I don't ever want to sit through something like that again. I knew what I could bring the game if I got better."
True to his reputation, Gordon did that fast.
From down-the-bench replacement to All-Star second baseman in nine months, Gordon has sped to a prominent role with the National League West-leading Dodgers as they returned to St. Louis this weekend for their first visit since losing the National League championship series to the Cardinals. The Cardinals took the best-of-seven joust for the NL pennant in six games to reach the World Series, and many of the same characters are back for the three-game series this weekend at Busch Stadium. Yasiel Puig is still flamboyant, effervescence with a mohawk and promise in right field. Adrian Gonzalez still chatters. The Dodgers have one too many outfielders and a loaded rotation. Although Cardinals' ace Adam Wainwright won't appear in this series as the Cardinals give him an extra four days of rest after the All-Star break, LA has stacked its aces for the series, going with Zack Greinke and Clayton Kershaw on Saturday and Sunday, respectively.
The pair rank first and seventh in the National League in ERA for starters with at least 80 innings pitched, and last month they held the Cardinals to one run in a combined 14 innings at Dodger Stadium.
The LA team that visits this weekend at Busch is quite similar to the one that left last October.
"It can be hard to get a read on them, but it's mostly the same," Cardinals third baseman Matt Carpenter said. "They're playing good, maybe they're a little more clicking like a group now. Maybe they were last year still trying to figure out how they work together. I could see that. They fit now. They know who they are now. But they're mostly the same team."
Except maybe, it was suggested to Carpenter, for Gordon.
"Oh, that's a big one," Carpenter said. "That's a big reason. He's really changed the top of that lineup. Any time he gets on he's dangerous. He's dangerous out there."
Gordon, 26, raced his way to an All-Star invitation with a league-best 43 steals and nine triples. He has a .398 slugging percentage and has scored 52 runs. Those are all already career highs for the son of former All-Star reliever Tom "Flash" Gordon. During last fall's NLCS, Gordon appeared in one game -- Game 1 at Busch Stadium. Gordon pinch ran for Gonzalez in the eighth inning of a 2-2 tie and was promptly thrown out at second base when Puig bounced into a forceout.
He had only two appearances total in the postseason, both as a pinch runner. Not even a key rib injury to starting shortstop Hanley Ramirez early in the NLCS got Gordon into the lineup.
The former first-round pick came to spring training uncertain what opportunity, if any, he would have at his natural position, shortstop, or the position he found himself in during 2013, benchwarmer.
A third possibility emerged as he played -- starting second baseman.
"I wasn't around the team enough last year to tell you how good they were," Gordon said. "I know they were playoff-caliber and only two games away from the World Series. But I wasn't there really so it's hard to compare. It really wasn't a small opportunity I had (in spring), it was a great opportunity. I took it for what it was -- a chance to get on the team. Obviously it was a platoon when I started. I saw the opportunity. I wasn't sure what capacity I'd be in, to be honest."
It didn't take long for him to create that capacity.
With a week to go in April, Gordon moved into the leadoff spot permanently and continued a 13-game stretch where he hit .333 with a .354 on-base percentage and nearly as many stolen bases (nine) as he had strikeouts (11). A novice second baseman, his 43 steals are 31 more than any other second baseman in the league. (The Cardinals' Kolten Wong has 12.) At leadoff, Gordon's .336 on-base percentage ranks sixth among everyday hitters in that spot, five places behind Carpenter's .376.
Carpenter leads NL leadoff hitters with 60 runs scored, and three spots behind him is Gordon with 50 runs scored.
The change agent Gordon has been for the Dodgers, compared to the lineup the Cardinals' saw in the NLCS, was obvious during the Cardinals' four-game visit to LA last month. The Dodgers' rotation flexed its talent -- Greinke and Kershaw combined to strike out 23 Cardinals in 14 innings -- and led LA to three wins in four days. The Cardinals scored a total of four runs. But sparking the offense in that series was Gordon, who hit .471 with a .500 on-base percentage in four days.
He didn't steal a base, but then again Yadier Molina was behind the plate in that series -- something he won't be this weekend as he recovers from thumb surgery.
"It's a good point," Greinke said when asked if Gordon makes this LA club different than the one the Cardinals defeated in the NLCS. "It's not like everybody is playing the exact same as last year and we get (one new) player. Some players are slightly worse. Some are slightly better. ... At the moment I wouldn't say we're better. We're not too much different. We've played well. We still need some breaks."
With their win against the Cardinals on June 29 in Los Angeles, the Dodgers moved into first place in the NL West. They have maintained their hold on the lead with a 54-43 record at the break and a one-game edge in their division. They went 7-6 after the series against the Cardinals. The Cardinals moved into a tie for first place the NL Central briefly on the eve of the All-Star break with an 8-5 finish after the series against the Dodgers.
The Cardinals' kick to the break was powered by a second baseman as well, as Wong hit five home runs in his past eight games, including four in one five-game stretch. He, like Gordon, was marooned on the bench for much of last fall's NLCS. Wong appeared three times as a pinch hitter. The Cardinals looked to him to add a dash of change to the lineup this season -- one of athleticism and added speed. Like the one Gordon has given the Dodgers, in All-Star quantities.
That could be the difference that decides a series, be it in July or a rematch in October.
Asked if after his position change he missed being a shortstop, Gordon grinned.
"Not right now because I'm an All-Star second baseman," Gordon said. "Just trying to help us get better everyday."
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