Dodgers’ Gavin Lux searching to put his best foot forward at the plate

EditorLast Update :
Dodgers’ Gavin Lux searching to put his best foot forward at the plate

WASHINGTON — Once regarded as one of the top prospects in the sport, baseball has not been all that kind to Gavin Lux over the last 14 months. He was given the starting shortstop job for the Los Angeles Dodgers last year, then tore his ACL just days into spring training. He lost the job again this spring, this time by his own doing defensively. When his glove rebounded, his bat pushed him from starting shortstop to part-time second baseman.

So as Lux rounded first base on Wednesday night after driving home two runs and cementing his first multihit performance in nearly a month, he allowed himself to experience relief. As he turned back to Dodgers first-base coach Clayton McCullough, he let out an exuberant exhale.

“Just look for those little things over the course of the season, especially when you’re slumping,” Lux said.

The ball was hardly crushed, a pulled groundball in the fifth inning that trickled through the right side. It was the type of contact he loathes this year (“All the f—ing rollovers,” Lux lamented this week). But it was a hit. He’d already lined single the other way on an elevated fastball in his first at-bat. That, manager Dave Roberts said, paved the way for the run-scoring single Lux had a few innings later.

It’s what Dodgers coaches and staffers have hoped for from their former top prospect. Lux experienced his best offensive campaign two years ago before his knee “blew up,” as he put it, and he found himself in this position.

Wednesday night wasn’t an arrival. His hits were two of 20 the Dodgers collected in an 11-2 battering of the Washington Nationals. Mookie Betts and Will Smith had more. Shohei Ohtani crushed three doubles and looks like the most fearsome hitter on the planet right now.

But Lux’s day was an important sign of progress. The Dodgers have remained bullish on Lux, despite his 9-for-61 start (.148) entering the night. It hasn’t been the start anyone has wanted, but it’s still been around 70 plate appearances. Lux is still 26. He’s playing strong defense. So the Dodgers haven’t considered cutting Lux’s playing time — he’s largely only faced right-handed pitching — any further.

“I don’t think that would be fair to anyone, to be quite honest,” Roberts said. Lux will get at least 150 plate appearances if not more to figure it out.

Lux has always found himself at the perilous corner of expectation and circumstance. In 2019, he hit better than any prospect in baseball, slugging 26 home runs in a partial minor-league season across two levels while running an OPS above 1.000, though the baseballs flying all across the Pacific Coast League that summer suggested that was going to be difficult to replicate.

His first few tastes of the big leagues proved that to be true. He was a September call-up in 2019 before bouncing up and down from the minors. Thrown into different positions — who among us remembers brief experiments at third base and in center field? All because the Dodgers believed in that promise in his bat.

Instruction spanning years locked Lux into the line-drive-centric profile that best suits him. By 2022, he’d found a way to become a productive hitter. His OPS that summer was at .800 entering September. His swing produced line drives and he took advantage of his athleticism. And given the opportunity to keep blooming, he got hurt. Given another opportunity at shortstop this year, his defense ended it before it began.

“He’ll put pressure on himself or try to do too much at times, I think,” Dodgers hitting coach Aaron Bates said. “(It’s about) not getting too big picture too fast, I think that’s where he gets in trouble.”

While Lux’s shaky defense grabbed headlines this spring, his bat produced. He jumped on the heavy diet of fastballs he saw, hitting close to .300. He expressed surprise at how dialed in everything was after missing a whole season. Then that went away, quickly.

He chopped home the winning run on Opening Day in Seoul, benefitting from an equipment malfunction from San Diego Padres first baseman Jake Cronenworth to do so. He collected a pair of hits the next night, and two more a week later in the Dodgers’ first weekend stateside. He’d record just five more hits over the two weeks that followed.

“My swing doesn’t feel that bad,” Lux said this week. “I’m seeing the ball fine. I don’t feel sped up. It’s just the actual hit part (that) is a little off.”

Lux and Dodgers coaches pinpointed the reason. Executing it means tricking himself.

Lux’s swing is built around his lower half, transferring his weight from his back leg to his front one and sticking that leg into and almost through the ground to “lock it out” and generate force. Bates compared it to a whip, with the front leg serving as the fulcrum for the rest of the body. Doing so, however, essentially sends that energy directly through where he has a scar on his right knee.

The Dodgers have insisted he’s healthy. Lux said he isn’t feeling pain. His knee is strong. He knows this. Lux just hasn’t gotten his body to cooperate consistently yet. On many swings this year, he’s gotten “soft” on his front leg, forcing the rest of his body to rotate and roll over on pitches. It’s left him vulnerable on the outer half of the plate, and caused him to swing and miss on several breaking balls he usually is able to stay back on and line the other way.

“I just got to get my brain to say, ‘F— it, it’s fine. Just go. Turn it and burn it, because it’s fine,’” Lux said. “We’re working on that, just trying to get over that hump.

“You’ve got to f—ing find a way to still perform when your brain’s still telling you to be safe.”

This is why the Dodgers stress patience. They’re encouraged by how Lux has absorbed his early season struggles. They decided to go with this bold plan to put Betts at shortstop because of their confidence that Lux would eventually hit. So they have to hope that he trusts himself — and his knee— enough to make that happen and be the hitter they want him to be.

Wednesday night, Roberts said, “was a really good step in the right direction.”

(Photo of Gavin Lux: Alex Brandon / Associated Press)