Former Central standout Gordon turns into potential pro

Former Central standout Gordon turns into potential pro

CHAMPAIGN — "Big Oak" resurfaced in Champaign-Urbana on Friday.

That's Tanner Gordon — or it was, at least, when he was pitching for Champaign Central.

"Tanner was a big, strong kid," said Maroons coach John Staab, who revealed his former pupil's high school nickname. "Kind of like an oak tree on the mound."

That part doesn't appear to have changed.

The 6-foot-5, 215-pound hurler moved forward from four years with Central and another two at John A. Logan College to securing a spot this year as one of three weekend starters for the 19th-ranked Indiana baseball program.

And Gordon has thrived, even considering what went down at Illinois Field on Saturday afternoon.

"I've always wanted to be a college baseball player," Gordon said after tossing seven innings and striking out five in a 3-1 loss to Illinois, "and to be able to pitch against Illinois was a dream come true."

Before returning to his hometown for a three-game Big Ten Conference series, which concludes at 1 p.m. today, the right-hander Gordon boasted a 4-3 record, 3.36 ERA and 71 strikeouts in 61 2 / 3 frames of work.

He's cashing in on the potential seen by Staab and Maroons pitching coach Cam Strang, to the point where selection in next month's MLB draft doesn't seem far-fetched.

"I did not think this would happen in a million years," Gordon said. "But I'm here now, trying not to take anything for granted."

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Gordon never attended an abundance of games at Illinois Field in his younger years, estimating he soaked up "maybe five or six."

That doesn't mean he wasn't interested in playing at such a level in his future.

"D-I ball was always a dream of mine out of high school," the 2016 Central graduate said.

To achieve that goal, he had to abide by Central's unofficial motto: "Get ready, it's (a) new day," or GRIND.

"I kind of think about that every once in a while," Gordon said. "Baseball's a humbling sport, so you're going to have days where you struggle and days where you succeed."

Staab got to witness the latter right away with Gordon.

"I remember starting him for the first time, as a sophomore at Danville," Staab said. "He handled himself well, threw a complete game. He was off and running from there."

Strang rates Gordon among the top three pitchers he's seen at Central, along with Maroons all-time wins leader Phil Swartz and current North Carolina State standout Alec Barger.

Gordon hauled in all-state and News-Gazette All-Area first-team recognition as a senior after sporting nine wins and a 0.73 ERA for a 28-10 regional champion.

That didn't mean Gordon was guaranteed a Division I chance.

"He threw a lot of strikes. He was able to get a lot of high school hitters out on fastballs, and he was dominant in that sense," Strang said. "But at the college level, you've got to be able to mix in other pitches and keep hitters off-balance, and obviously he's made that transition pretty well."

Staab agrees with Strang's assessment, describing Gordon as "kind of a work in progress in high school."

Hence the commitment not to a D-I squad out of Central, but to a junior college in Carterville's John A. Logan.

"He felt like the junior college route was his fastest route," Staab said, "where he was going to get the reps necessary to ultimately be a D-I pitcher."

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Gordon received plenty of work with the Volunteers and offered up some impressive numbers in response.

As a freshman, he earned a 6-0 record in eight starts while striking out 52 in 50 innings to go with a 3.22 ERA.

Things only got better in Gordon's sophomore stint.

He upped his ledger to 12 starts, posting a 9-2 record with three complete games in 70 innings in addition to 104 strikeouts and a 2.06 ERA.

"The biggest thing besides me getting a lot bigger and stronger was just the mental part of the game," Gordon said. "It's one of the more important parts of the game, especially as a pitcher."

Gordon actually decided in October 2017 that his next stop would be Indiana, well before his first official outing with the team on Feb. 16, 2019.

"I instantly fell in love with the atmosphere in Bloomington," Gordon said. "I really felt like it was the place I could develop at and become the player I am today."

He also felt the transition between the junior college and D-I levels was seamless, and wound up surprised at his immediate role with the Hoosiers.

"I really wasn't expecting to be one of the weekend guys right off the bat," said Gordon, whose addition followed the departures of former weekend starters Jonathan Stiever and Tim Herrin. "The coaches believed in me, the players believed in me and I'm kind of living up to my expectations."

That said, early results didn't go in Gordon's favor.

The Hoosiers fell short in three of his first four starts as Gordon allowed 12 earned runs in 16 2 / 3 innings.

The tide turned in Gordon's fifth outing, when he threw eight innings of four-hit ball and punched out 10 in a victory versus Canisius.

"I felt confident in myself," Gordon said. "It was our first game I pitched at home. I felt really comfortable with my body, comfortable with who I was as a pitcher that day."

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Even before Gordon traveled back to the city where he first honed his craft, Strang was keeping tabs on Gordon's college efforts.

"His aunt (Marsha Rubarts) works at Edison (Middle School), where I teach," Strang said. "She has a schedule board of wins and losses, and when Tanner pitches it makes it even a little more special."

Strang, Staab and fellow Central assistant coach Leconte Nix made sure to witness Gordon's latest performance up close, and all three gave him a handshake and hug following the outcome.

"That was awesome," Gordon said. "I haven't seen them in forever. ... I didn't think there'd be this many people showing up."

Outside of getting to see some familiar faces — Gordon expected his parents, brother, nephew, niece and high school trainer, Joe Yager, to be in attendance Saturday — Gordon treated this appearance as just another game.

With a bit of a twist.

"(I had to) treat it like any other start, pitch to the best of my ability and just have that little chip on my shoulder," Gordon said. "There's no beef with me and the U of I, by any means. ... (There was) something in the back of my mind that just wants to beat them real bad."