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Real or not? Struggling slugger joins MLB's yearlong HR party with record shot

In a season in which everyone has hit home runs, I suppose it makes perfect sense that the worst hitter in the majors would hit the home run that set the record for home runs in a season:

OK, that's a little unfair to Alex Gordon. He isn't really the worst hitter in the league. He's just the worst hitter who has managed to hold on to a regular job all season. His 409-foot home run off Ryan Tepera in the eighth inning of Kansas City's game at Toronto was Major League Baseball's 5,694th of the season, breaking the previous record set in 2000. With more than a week of games remaining, the projected final total should surpass 6,100 home runs -- or nearly 2,000 more than were hit in 2014, when everyone suddenly worried about the lack of power in the game.

It could have been Tim Beckham, Didi Gregorius, Justin Turner, Stuart Turner, Logan Morrison or Tim Anderson -- some of the other guys who were batting at the same time as Gordon. It could have been Jose Altuve, who hit the 5,695th home run of 2017. Instead, it will be Gordon who goes down in the history books -- at least for now -- after fouling off a 3-2 fastball and connecting on a hanging slider:

It was Gordon's eighth home run of 2017, a rare highlight in what has been a miserable season at the plate. He's hitting .209/.286/.314, and he has just 29 extra-base hits in 137 games. This from a guy who once hit 51 doubles in a season and ranked sixth in the American League in extra-base hits.

After helping the Royals reach back-to-back World Series in 2014 and 2015, Gordon re-signed as a free agent on a four-year, $72 million contract. He was coming off three straight All-Star seasons and probably took less money to remain in Kansas City. At the time, it was hailed as a nice coup for the small-market Royals, bringing back one of their homegrown players with the largest contract in Royals history.

Instead, it has been a disastrous signing, as Gordon didn't hit well in 2016, and he is owed $44 million after this season. His defense has remained excellent, but after averaging 5.4 WAR per season from 2011 through 2015, he has been worth just 1.0 WAR over the past two seasons combined.

It's the latest twist in a career full of them. Gordon was the second overall pick in the 2005 draft out of the University of Nebraska and was immediately hailed as the new George Brett, a left-handed hitting third baseman who would hit for average and power.

Gordon's first two seasons were solid if unspectacular, but then things fell apart. In 2009 and 2010, he found himself back in the minors. However, while in Omaha in 2010, he moved to the outfield and a new phase of his career was born. He became Kansas City's starting left fielder in 2011 and had the best season of his career, hitting .303/.376/.502 with 23 home runs and 101 runs, while winning the first of four straight Gold Gloves.

As the Royals slowly rebuilt into a World Series winner, he became one of the veteran leaders of the club. Players such as Eric Hosmer and Mike Moustakas, who came up after Gordon, praised him as the guy who had suffered through all the bad times and helped develop a winning attitude.

When the Royals won it all in 2015, it was Gordon who arguably had the biggest hit of the World Series: a game-tying home run off Jeurys Familia in the bottom of the ninth in a game the Royals eventually won in 14 innings.

Where are all the 2017 home runs coming from?

Well, rookies are hitting a lot. Entering Tuesday, they had hit 708 home runs, the most by rookies in one season and nearly double the total that rookies hit in 2000 (363). With 44 home runs, Aaron Judge has a chance to break Mark McGwire's rookie record of 49 set in 1987. Cody Bellinger has 38, tied for third most by a rookie; one more and he'll set the National League record.

Other theories include batters changing their launch angles (though the percentage of fly balls hasn't changed) and PEDs. The most likely answer, however, is a change in the way the ball is manufactured.

The rate of home runs turned sharply upward in the second half of 2015. In comparing new baseballs to older ones, Ben Lindbergh of The Ringer and sabermetrician Mitchel Lichtman found that the balls became smaller and the seams got lower -- changes that would make the ball smoother and subject to less air resistance. Rob Arthur, of FiveThirtyEight, had findings that expanded on that, noting that there has been a significant decrease in the air resistance, or drag, of the ball, which has led to an increase in fly ball distance and, therefore, more home runs.

MLB has denied any alterations to the ball, but even small changes in the manufacturing process could alter the ball while keeping it within the range of acceptable measurements.

Whatever the cause, everyone is hitting home runs now. The chase for the record home run reminded me somewhat of an infamous story from 1975. Baseball had determined that the one millionth run in major league history would be scored that season and made a big publicity stunt of it. Tootsie Roll signed on as a sponsor (with Joe DiMaggio as pitchman), and the player who scored the millionth run would receive a $1,000 watch from Seiko (back when the average MLB salary was $44,000).

Anyway, everyone was aware as the total got close to one million. Houston's Bob Watson was on second base when Milt May homered, and Watson sprinted home, apparently four seconds ahead of Cincinnati's Dave Concepcion, who homered in a different game and also sprinted around the bases. News reports said Rod Carew of the Twins could have scored the millionth run but was thrown out at home plate.

Watson became the answer to a trivia question. Maybe that too will be Gordon's legacy -- at least until the record is broken next season.

Red Sox love extra innings: The Red Sox beat the Orioles 1-0 in 11 innings as the winning run scored on a wild pitch with two outs. They're now 15-3 in extra innings, tying the franchise record for extra-inning wins. It's also the first time the Red Sox have recorded two shutouts of 11 innings or longer since 1916 -- when some guy named Babe Ruth was pitching for them. Note that Carson Smith faced two batters and fanned both of them. That Boston bullpen could be getting even deeper.

Anyway, that extra-inning record is the reason the Red Sox lead the American League East. They have a plus-114 run differential, while the Yankees are plus-178; but the Yankees are 5-6 in extras (and 17-25 in one-run games). Let's see who Boston's extra-innings heroes have been:

  • April 5: Sandy Leon hits three-run walk-off HR in the 12th (the other shutout win).

  • April 20: Mookie Betts hits two-out, three-run double in 10th.

  • May 17: Fernando Abad with two scoreless innings; Ben Taylor with the save (13 innings).

  • June 12: Matt Barnes fans five in two innings for the win; Pablo Sandoval starts winning rally with a hit. (Probably the only good thing he did all season.)

  • June 13: Abad wins again with two scoreless innings.

  • June 30: Three runs in the 11th, as Deven Marrero knocks in two; Blaine Boyer goes two for the W.

  • July 3: Andrew Benintendi with a two-out, two-run single in the 11th.

  • July 18: Hanley Ramirez hits a walk-off homer in the 15th; Hector Velazquez pitches four scoreless innings for the win.

  • July 29: Leon doubles and later scores winning run on a slow grounder.

  • Aug. 4: Mitch Moreland with the walk-off home run.

  • Aug. 13: This was the game in which Rafael Devers homered off Aroldis Chapman in the ninth to send it to extra innings. Benintendi knocks in the winning run.

  • Sept. 5: The 19-inning marathon finally ends when Ramirez doubles and Betts singles him home. Eleven relievers combined for 13 shutout innings, with Velazquez pitching the final inning for the W.

  • Sept. 15: Against the Rays, both teams score in the 14th, but the Red Sox put up seven runs in the 15th.

  • Sept. 18: Benintendi with the two-out go-ahead hit in the 11th.

  • Sept. 19: Barnes follows his win on Monday with a save.

Going through these extra-inning games speaks to the importance of bullpen depth. Some no-name relievers have stepped up for the Red Sox, guys such as Abad, Velazquez and Boyer. Barnes is 3-0 with a save in five appearances. Two of the three losses actually belong to Doug Fister, who has allowed five of the eight runs Boston has yielded in extras. Check Boston's combined pitching line in extra innings: 57⅔ IP, 36 hits, 20 walks, 55 K's, two HRs, 1.25 ERA. Boston's pen hasn't been as heralded as the Yankees', but it's arguably been more clutch.

Wild-card winner of the night. The Brewers beat the Pirates 1-0 for their second straight shutout, and then they picked up a game on the Rockies when the Giants won 4-3 via a walk-off. The Brewers have gone 8-2 in their past 10 contests and now are just one game back of Colorado for the second NL wild card.

One of Milwaukee's unsung under-the-radar players has been Domingo Santana, whose fourth-inning home run held up as the game's only run. He has 26 home runs and a .371 OBP in his first full season (he missed time last year and played just 77 games). Santana has been around a long time -- he was traded from the Phillies to the Astros way back in 2011 -- but just turned 25 in August. He could cut down on his strikeouts a bit, but the walks are nice and this looks like a breakout type of season.

Wild-card loser of the night. The Angels missed an opportunity to pick up a game on the Twins with a 6-3 loss to the Indians. What also hurt is that it was 3-1 when Mike Trout grounded into a double play in the sixth and 3-2 in the eighth when Trout grounded out sharply to second with runners at the corners and two outs. The Indians then broke it open in the ninth.

American League center field Gold Glove update. Tampa Bay's Kevin Kiermaier made another outstanding catch, a few days after his catch of the year candidate:

Meanwhile, Boston's Jackie Bradley Jr. made his third home run robbery of the season, although it was a fairly routine play in front of the short fence in Baltimore. Both are strong Gold Glove candidates in a field crowded with excellence. Neither is going to win. Your Defensive Runs Saved leaders among AL center fielders entering Tuesday:

On a per-inning basis, Kiermaier is tied with Buxton with Hicks just a tick behind them, but Kiermaier has started just 88 games out there because of injuries. It would have been a fun debate if Kiermaier had remained healthy, but Buxton should win his first Gold Glove.