Serendipity can sometimes create magic, and that appears to be what is happening for Brian Gordon in his 15th minor-league season.
The 2011 season started without Gordon, a former seventh-round pick of the Arizona Diamondbacks who has 119 career minor-league home runs and an undying dream to become a big-league pitcher again. When the Phillies minor-leaguers were assigned to their various destinations in early April, Gordon remained in Clearwater with the extended spring training squad.
"He had a little arm soreness, so we had to keep him down in extended to get him healthy," said Gorman Heimueller, the Phillies minor-league pitching coordinator. "When he was getting healthy and I was down in extended spring training I talked to him and said, 'Listen, I can't make any promises about when and where you're going to pitch.' I think the next day someone got hurt and he was in triple A."
Eight days later, Vance Worley was promoted to the Phillies and Gordon volunteered to take his spot in the IronPigs rotation.
"I let them know that I would love to be the guy to fill that spot and they said, 'OK, thanks, we'll let you know,' " Gordon said. "It was just supposed to be a spot start."
It has turned into something much more.
Including Saturday night's game against Louisville, Gordon has made nine starts and was 5-0 with a 1.14 ERA that was the lowest in the International League. Those are the kinds of numbers that make scouts pay extra attention, even when you are an atypical prospect such as Gordon.
The righthander from Round Rock, Texas, will turn 33 in August and he spent the first 10 seasons of his professional career trying to break into the big leagues as an outfielder.
At the end of the 2006 season, Gordon went to Jackie Moore, then his manager at triple-A Round Rock in the Houston Astros organization, and told him he'd like an opportunity to pitch. Moore responded positively to the request, and that offseason Gordon received a phone call from the Astros telling him that he'd prepare for spring training by working with Hall of Famer Nolan Ryan, owner of the Round Rock team.
Gordon went to high school in Round Rock and idolized Ryan, so he naturally saw this as a pretty cool opportunity.
"I grew up watching him my whole life and every day I'd get home from school and pop in the video and watch all his strikeouts," Gordon said. "You can't beat that as an instructor. I was completely blessed."
Ryan's most helpful advice: "That you've got to command the fastball," Gordon said. "I was 28 years old when I made the conversion and he said, 'For this to work, you have to be able to command your fastball and throw strikes or nobody is going to give you a chance.' "
To this point, Gordon's command has been freakishly good. He has walked seven and struck out 56 in 551/3 innings.
"He's a machine," Lehigh Valley reliever Michael Schwimer said. "I mean, this guy is an absolute machine. He gets so many early-in-the-count outs. Honestly, it's artistry. It's beautiful to watch him pitch. If he doesn't get you early on his pitch . . . then the hitters are 0-2 and he'll strike you out. It's pick your poison."
In addition to commanding his fastball, Gordon, with assistance from IronPigs pitching coach Rod Nichols, has added a cutter to his arsenal of pitches. He said that has helped him against lefthanded hitters. A year ago lefties batted .291 against him. This year, they were hitting .165 heading into Saturday night.
"It has been a lot of fun to watch," Lehigh Valley manager Ryne Sandberg said. "It's to the point that when it is his day to pitch, you expect quality and he delivers."
Heimueller said Gordon's fastball is typically clocked at 89 to 91 m.p.h.
"It's good enough," Heimueller said. "It's definitely good enough. With the angle he shows and the command he shows, it's very, very playable."
Is it good enough to get him back to the big leagues?
"Is he capable of pitching in the big leagues? Yeah," Heimueller said. "But he can't worry about that. If you keep doing well and putting up zeroes, you'll be given opportunities."
The only time Gordon made more than 11 minor-league starts was in 2008, which is also the same year he made his only three major-league appearances in a relief role with the Texas Rangers.
Now, thanks to a sequence of serendipitous events and his own hard work, Gordon can be considered a prospect again, although he's not entirely comfortable with that classification.
"After 15 years in the minor leagues, I don't know how to classify myself," Gordon said.
At that moment, Schwimer walked in the room and offered some help.
"You can classify him as our ace," the IronPigs reliever said.