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Healthy and happy, Dee Gordon looks for a bounceback for the Mariners

UPDATED: Wed., Feb. 20, 2019, 12:11 p.m.

The Mariners’ Dee Gordon celebrates after scoring against Arizona last season. (Rick Scuteri / Associated Press)
The Mariners’ Dee Gordon celebrates after scoring against Arizona last season. (Rick Scuteri / Associated Press)
By Ryan Divish Seattle Times

PEORIA, Ariz. – As Dee Gordon sprinted around the bases during a drill on Sunday morning, he ran with an ease and grace that wasn’t evident for most of last season.

But the obvious sign that he, and specifically his feet, are healthy was when he had to slow down to a stop after simulating a triple. There was no wincing in pain and there were no awkward steps to try and avoid it.

For the first time since last spring, Gordon can walk, run, field ground balls, accelerate around a base and come to a stop without feeling pain in his feet.

While it was known that Gordon suffered a fractured big toe in May, it wasn’t known that he was dealing with issues in both of his feet.

It started late in the offseason and got worse in spring training as he was trying to convert from second base to center field. Something with his shoes he was wearing caused awful pain in the feet and built up massive calluses that made it difficult to walk and run. He tried out different shoes and finally found some level of relief, but it was too late. He had to wait until after the season to have doctors remove the calluses in a minor procedure.

“I couldn’t walk barefoot,” he said.

Still, he was able to play through it enough to get off to a solid start to the season, hitting leadoff and being a catalyst at the top of the lineup.

And then on May 9 in a game in Toronto, Gordon fouled a ball off his right foot, fracturing his big toe. It forced him out of the lineup the next day. But two days later he played in both games of a doubleheader against the Tigers. He was swinging the bat well. The Mariners were winning. He would deal with the pain.

In the Sunday finale of the series, Robinson Cano suffered a broken hand on a hit by a pitch. A day later, Cano accepted an 80-game suspension for violating the Major League Baseball and the MLB Players’ Association joint drug agreement.

Instead of perhaps resting his foot a few days on the upcoming homestand, Gordon was being moved back to second base after not working out at the position once during the offseason or spring training. Four games into his return to second base, Gordon aggravated the fracture in the toe, making it worse while chasing down a pop fly in foul territory. He needed to give it a few days off and had a stint on the disabled list.

“The toe was broken and then I redid it again,” he said. “That’s when I went on the DL. We were like, ‘OK, let’s give this a few days.’ But we were winning so I was like, ‘I have to get back right away.’ You play through it.”

So that’s what he did. He missed the minimum of 10 days, but the pain was still there.

“When I broke the toe, it made everything worse,” he said. “So both feet had pain. I was walking around trying to keep pressure off of one and putting more on the other one. Both feet had issues. My feet ached for the rest of the season.”

Going back on the disabled list wasn’t an option despite the discomfort.

“I was frustrated, but it was just like I had to do what I had to do,” he said. “We were playing good ball and one of our best guys was already out; I couldn’t go anywhere.”

After a torrid start in April and early May, the numbers started to decline. He was in pain in the batter’s box, and it affected his swing. He didn’t have the burst out of the box and never felt like he could run at his top speed.

He had a .340 batting average and .362 on-base percentage with eight doubles, a triple, a homer, eight RBIs, 22 runs scored and 15 stolen bases in 35 games before the broken toe.

Over the next 106 games, he hit .243 with a .263 on-base percentage, nine doubles, seven triples, 28 RBIs and just 15 stolen bases.

His swing-first approach at the plate became swing-always as he tried to hit himself out of his struggles. It only made things worse. He wasn’t getting on base and was demoted from leadoff to the No. 9 spot in August. It’s a move that was probably made too late in the season.

“I couldn’t turn on my foot,” he said. “I couldn’t keep my foot on the ground.”

Telling people outside of the clubhouse about the pain he was experiencing was a nonstarter. That’s not what you do. That’s not part of the baseball code he follows and believes in.

“I had 15 (stolen bases) the day I injured my toe in May and I had a total 30 for the season,” he said. “But because I didn’t say anything, people didn’t realize I was hurting.”

And then came the return of Cano in August. After playing second base in the interim, Gordon got turned into a super-utility player. He bounced from second base to center field back to second base and even had to fill in at shortstop when Jean Segura missed games. It wasn’t ideal. He’d arrive at the park each day wondering where he was playing. The time away from center field and the missed repetitions made going back there feel unfamiliar. He looked uncomfortable in the outfield, hesitant on dying line drives and uncertain on catches near the wall.

“You play where they tell you to play,” he said.

But it was clear he was unhappy with bouncing around. And nobody in the clubhouse seemed to like the plan, including Cano. Gordon’s vivacious personality in May rarely appeared in the final months of the season. The team was fading from the postseason race, he was struggling to perform, his body was rebelling against him and there was the fear of doing more to hurt the team in the outfield. He grew quiet and reserved.

Then came the altercation with Segura in the Mariners’ clubhouse on Sept. 4. Gordon confronted Segura about some comments and texts Segura had made to other teammates criticizing Gordon’s performance, remaining in the lineup and specifically dropping a fly ball the night before – a play that left Gordon embarrassed to the point he exited the park without talking to the media about the mistake.

After being hurt and struggling, he was now being mocked. He confronted Segura about what was said and texted. Segura didn’t appreciate it. The two men got into it with multiple teammates breaking up their scuffle right in front of the assembled media. It was a fitting metaphor to the team’s collapse in the second half.

Gordon won’t comment on the scuffle publicly. But he and many of his teammates felt it was justified given that Segura had violated the unwritten clubhouse rules.

The two men interacted normally in the days that followed, though Segura felt like much of the team had turned against him.

With Segura traded to Philadelphia as part of the offseason “stepback” plan and Cano sent to the New York Mets, Gordon gets to go back to second base on a full-time basis. There will be no bouncing back and forth between positions.

“Getting Dee back in his comfort zone I think is really important,” manager Scott Servais said. “Everyone saw what he’s able to do and what he does for an entire team. The first couple months last season he was awesome, getting on base and creating all kinds of opportunities. But we did throw a lot on his plate last year. At this time last year, he was only concerned about catching fly balls. He wasn’t concerned that much about his bunt game or how he felt offensively and things like that. We’re certainly giving him (the) opportunity (to go) back to his natural position and letting him take it and run with it.”

But Gordon’s regression in his approach must be addressed. He must improve his swing decisions. The Mariners are emphasizing it this offseason, showing him extensive data of what pitches he swings at and the ones that he actually hits well.

“There are some things Dee needs to address in his game offensively,” Servais said. “Controlling the strike zone a little better is one of them. It’s something he’s aware of and will be trying to work on this spring.”

Gordon is going to embrace what they are asking, but he’s really just happy to be able to feel normal in the batter’s box, on the bases and in the field.

“I get to be myself,” he said. “I feel comfortable out there and clean. I had a good offseason of fielding and I’m ready to go. I’m ready to compete and I’m ready to win.”

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