Dodgers center fielder Gavin Lux thought teammate Cody Bellinger, who suffered through perhaps the worst regular season of any major league hitter, needed a little pick-me-up on the eve of Thursday night’s win-or-go-home National League Division Series Game 5 against the San Francisco Giants.
“I sent Cody a GIF of Kobe throwing an alley-oop to Shaq,” Lux said, referring to the famous pass from former Lakers star Kobe Bryant to Shaquille O’Neal for a slam dunk in Game 7 of the 2000 NBA Western Conference Finals. “I said that’s you and me [Thursday] night.”
The Lux-to-Bellinger connection wasn’t quite as forceful as O’Neill’s rim-rattling finish two decades ago, but it got the job done, and — like the Lakers in 2000 — it moved the Dodgers one step closer to a potential championship.
With Justin Turner aboard after the third baseman was hit in the left triceps by a 100-mph fastball from Giants closer Camilo Doval and one out in the top of the ninth, Lux, on a 2-and-2 count, turned on a 98-mph fastball from Doval and grounded a single to right field to put two on.
Bellinger, the 2019 NL most valuable player who hit .165 with a .542 on-base-plus-slugging percentage, 10 homers and 36 RBIs in 95 games of an injury-marred season, then lined an 88-mph slider to right center for an RBI single that lifted the Dodgers to an eventual 2-1 victory, silenced a crowd of 42,375 in Oracle Park and sent the Dodgers into the NL Championship Series against the Atlanta Braves.
“Props to him for sending that GIF,” Bellinger said of Lux after the game. “He hit a single just as well as I did. I just happened to have J.T. on second base. He put together an unbelievable at-bat to keep the momentum going.”
Bellinger struck out and grounded out in his first two at-bats Thursday night, but he had a more competitive, eight-pitch at-bat before striking out on an 81-mph slider from Giants starter Logan Webb to end the seventh.
When he fell behind with a 1-and-2 count in the ninth, Bellinger, as he had before a key hit earlier in the series, choked up on the bat a la Corey Seager. He stayed back on Doval’s slider and smoked a single into right-center for his third career game-winning hit in a winner-take-all playoff game.
“That might be more of a hitter guy thing, but I do think that shortening the swing, choking up and controlling the barrel gives you a better chance of contact,” Dodgers manager Dave Roberts said. “Right there, we didn’t need a home run. We needed a base hit.”
As Lux stepped to the plate in the ninth, the words of Turner and former Dodgers second baseman Chase Utley were probably rattling around in his head. Before his first-ever playoff series in 2019, Lux got some advice from the pair that still resonates with him today.
“They pulled me aside and told me, ‘Every time you step in the box, try to have that feeling that you’re four for four,’” the left-handed-hitting Lux said before Thursday night’s game. “That’s, like, the best feeling you can have as a hitter. Going up there four for four, there’s no pressure. You feel good.”
Lux’s first three at-bats did not go very well Thursday night. He struck out looking at a 94-mph fastball on the outside corner from Webb to end the second inning and struck out looking at another Webb fastball, this one 93 mph and on the inside corner, to lead off the fifth.
Lux hit a weak grounder to first for the second out of the seventh, but he was able to put those failures aside before his ninth-inning at-bat.
Lux did not start in the first three games of the division series, but with the need for another left-handed bat against Giants right-hander Anthony DeSclafani in Game 4, Lux started in center and reached base four times, smacking two singles, drawing two walks and scoring a run in the Dodgers’ 7-2 win.
That performance earned Lux the Game 5 start in center field, a formidable task for a converted middle infielder who had not played the outfield in the minor leagues or big leagues until early September.
Few major league stadiums require a center fielder to cover more ground than Oracle Park, which is 391 feet to straight-away center, 399 feet to the gap in left-center and a cavernous 415 feet to right-center, where a brick wall can add a degree of difficulty.
“Yeah, there’s a little more dimensions, it’s a little funky out there with the brick wall and kind of how the walls are angled,” Lux said. “So just being aware of that going into the game and kind of scouting it out during batting practice — that will kind of help me feel more comfortable.”
Lux’s Game 4 start in center was his first since a Sept. 29 game against the San Diego Padres, when he slammed face-first into the wall at nearly full speed in pursuit of a Wil Myers triple and suffered a neck-stinger that sidelined him for several days.
Such a violent hit can cause inexperienced outfielders to be skittish going toward the wall, but third-base coach Dino Ebel, who works with the team’s outfielders, hasn’t noticed any hesitancy on Lux’s part.
“He said it didn’t bother him,” Ebel said before batting practice Thursday. “He knows where the track is, he knows when he’s getting close to the wall, so doesn’t affect him at all. He’s been taking a lot of reps in center field at home, here, and he feels good. There’s a lot of room to roam, but he has the speed to do it. He’s fine. He’ll be OK.”
Lux did not get a lot of action defensively Thursday night, but he did make a nice running catch of Darin Ruf’s drive to deep right-center field for the second out of the third inning.