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2/17/2013 2:30 P.M. ET

Hard work, raw talent fuel Gordon's turnaround

SURPRISE, Ariz. -- An enduring symbol of Alex Gordon is an empty chair in front of his locker. He's seldom there.

The Royals' left fielder arrives at the Spring Training clubhouse early in the morning. Then it's off to the weight room. Or the batting cages. Gordon is working long before the team's workout begins.

Manager Ned Yost gets to the clubhouse before the roadrunners and the rattlers are stirring in the desert, so he's well aware of Gordon's work habits.

"It's increased, it's crazy," Yost said. "He's always the first one here, always the first one in the weight room. Always consistent with his routine, never takes a day off. Tremendous discipline."

That's a big reason why, after years of injury and disappointment, Gordon in the last two seasons has become the rock of the Royals. He's proved that his breakout season at bat in 2011 was no fluke. And, while he was at it, he's won back-to-back Gold Gloves as the American League's best left fielder.

"I think I work out smarter," Gordon said. "I still work hard, but I stretch and I go in the weight room not to just get strong, but [to get ready] for baseball activities, stuff that's going to help me on the field. It's just experience and getting older and maybe a little bit wiser."

Gordon, who turned 29 a week ago, made a stunningly successful switch from third base to left field in 2010. His return from injuries wasn't going very well, so he was dispatched to Triple-A Omaha to fix his hitting. Everybody knew that Mike Moustakas would end up at third base so, what the heck, why not try Gordon in the outfield while he was at Omaha.

A year later, he won a Gold Glove.

There are still the daily forays around left field during batting practice for Gordon. He charges after batting practice hits as he would in a game. Pitchers shagging in the outfield clear the area.

"They stand over in right or center or stand by the fence and leave me alone," Gordon said. "They try to stay clear so we don't have any collisions."

The ritual has done wonders for Gordon.

"It makes me feel a lot more comfortable on game hits, knowing that I took all those batting practice hits like games, so it just comes naturally, or at least I hope it does," he said. "That's kind of the whole plan -- practice makes perfect and that's what I try to do."

The number of diving catches and bullet throws that Gordon has executed over the last two years would make an endless highlight reel. In his first full year in left field, he was with center fielder Melky Cabrera and right fielder Jeff Francoeur, and he credits them with setting a great defensive example.

"They had spent some years in the big leagues and me being brand new, I picked their brains about what they would do," Gordon said.

In 2011, Gordon led the Majors with 20 outfield assists and Francoeur was second with 16. Last year, Francoeur led the Majors with 19 assists and Gordon was second with 17.

"I really think that Frenchy's [Francoeur] throwing ability and his aggressiveness in the outfield helped me out," Gordon said. "Not only the players, but Rusty [Kuntz] and a lot of the other outfield coaches, too. It's a lot of hard work and I'm just trying to get better every day."

A left-handed batter who was the Royals' first-round Draft choice and second overall selection in 2005, Gordon leaped from a superb Double-A season in 2006 right into the Majors. Two mediocre years were followed by 2009's hip surgery and 2010's thumb fracture and the subsequent demotion to Omaha.

But 2011 changed everything. Gordon hit .303, banged 23 homers, scored 101 runs and knocked in 87 -- all career highs.

Last year wasn't quite as good, but at least Gordon proved he was no one-year wonder. He had an AL-leading 51 doubles, but his average slipped to .294 with 93 runs, 14 homers and 72 RBIs.

"It's just part of the game. I started out slow." Gordon said. "Everybody wants to start off well and when it didn't happen, it probably got to me a little bit."

It's probably no coincidence that during the Royals' numbing 12-game skid last April, Gordon's average sank to .167.

"We weren't winning games and if you're not hitting well, it kind of feels like you're not doing your job," Gordon said. "So I think it was kind of good for us to go through it, just with a young team to experience that and know we've been through it and know how to handle it. It stunk at the time, but it's probably a good thing that it happened."

Gordon wound up being the Royals' leadoff batter in 81 games, exactly half of their schedule, and that's where he's likely to start the season this year. Yost is thinking Gordon followed by Alcides Escobar, Eric Hosmer and Billy Butler.

Gordon prospered in the No. 1 slot last year with a .307 average and .375 on-base percentage.

Gordon has moved from Kansas City back to his hometown of Lincoln, Neb., with wife Jamie and 2-year-old son Max. His ties to his alma mater, the University of Nebraska, are strong.

"I try to go to every football game," he said. "I try to go into the games, but it's so much fun with my friends that tailgate outside and watch it on TV, but we go to pretty much every game."

Gordon prepared for this season with workouts at the university. Some of his old Huskers teammates are now coaches and they often pitch to him. So he arrived in camp ready to go.

His chair is empty.

"He's a very, very solid Major League player, in all aspects of his game," Yost said. "He could play on anybody's team. He's a championship-caliber player. I don't know what else to say."

Dick Kaegel is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.