Gavin Lux geared up for a fastball. There wasn’t much of a choice. He was entrenched opposite Noah Syndergaard, and the BB-throwing New York Mets right-hander had just fired two 98-mph fastballs for strikes to climb out of a 3-0 hole. It was be ready for another one or face the strong possibility of getting blown away.
But Lux recognized a different pitch out of Syndergaard’s hand. It was a curveball. Lux knew it was part of Syndergaard’s arsenal, but the data he‘d studied showed Syndergaard almost never throws it to left-handed hitters. This was an exception, so Lux changed his plan when he recognized the breaking ball.
The 81-mph pitch hung. Lux stayed back and timed a ferocious swing perfectly. The ball traveled 419 feet to straightaway center field. It bounced off the batter’s eye beyond the wall and back into play. Lux, unsure if it was a home run, hustled to third base. Once there, the third-base umpire told him to proceed. Lux jogged 90 feet to finish off his second career home run and break a 1-1 tie in the fourth inning Friday against a desperate team tussling for a playoff spot.
That ability to make a split-second adjustment and unleash power illustrates why the 21-year-old Lux likely will make the Dodgers’ postseason roster. Syndergaard, while not at the top of his game this season, boasts elite stuff and was new to Lux. Those are the kinds of pitchers — hard-throwing and unfamiliar — the Dodgers will constantly face in the postseason. The Dodgers believe Lux has the talent and moxie to effectively counter those pitchers, and they will take as much talent as possible into October.
“That velocity has a tendency to speed any hitter up and get you to expand,” Dodgers manager Dave Roberts said. “But you look at Gavin’s at-bats tonight, he was in the strike zone. A place he’s never played before, in this environment, you can check a box. And so certainly we keep that in the back of our minds.”
He is the last of several rookies to make an immediate impact on the Dodgers this season, a list that includes Alex Verdugo, Will Smith, Matt Beaty, Edwin Rios, Dustin May and Tony Gonsolin. Lux arrived with the most hype. But the original plan wasn’t for Lux to play for the Dodgers this season. If he reached the majors in 2019, it would be as a non-playing intern, a role Smith, now the team’s starting catcher, assumed last September.
Two developments hastened his arrival. First, he morphed into one of the best players in the minor leagues this summer, mashing his way into consideration. He was named Baseball America’s minor league player of the year for his production — a .347 batting average, 1.028 OPS, and 26 home runs — across double A and triple A. He solidified his place as a pillar in the Dodgers’ future enough for the club to refuse to trade him for an elite reliever at the trade deadline.
Secondly, infielder Max Muncy fractured his right wrist at the end of August. His injury freed at-bats at second base. Lux was drafted as a shortstop and has played there most of his career, but he started 78 games at second, including 12 starts in his two months with triple-A Oklahoma City. His throwing yips, which resurfaced during spring training and seeped into the start of the season, appear to be behind him.
The Dodgers view Lux exclusively as a second baseman this season, though he could play elsewhere — maybe even in the outfield — in the future. If he makes the playoff roster, it’ll likely be in the role he’s assumed since making his big league debut Sept. 2: He’ll start at second against right-handed starting pitchers. Muncy would start at second against left-handers and likely move to first base against right-handers.
“From us to Gavin, it’s about control what you can control,” Dodgers president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman said. “Go out and have fun and play baseball. And then we’ll see where things are when we get to the end of the season.”
Lux made his Dodgers debut with a line-drive single on the first pitch he saw. He doubled later in the game and added another hit the next day. Then he went hitless over his next 14 at-bats. Hitting coach Robert Van Scoyoc told Lux he was being too passive. Plate discipline was a strength, but so was Lux’s ability to punish pitchers for mistakes.
Lux snapped the skid with three hits in his final three at-bats, including his first career home run, against the Baltimore Orioles on Sept. 10 as the Dodgers clinched their seventh consecutive National League West title with a win. Since then, Lux is nine for 25 (.360) in eight games, improving his overall numbers to a .267 batting average, .327 on-base percentage and .483 slugging percentage.
The at-bat against Syndergaard remains the highlight so far.
“I was like, ‘If it’s in the zone, let’s open it up a little bit. If it’s in the zone and I see it well, let’s let it eat a little bit,’” Lux said that night. “So, yeah, it was a good switch of mind set a little bit.”
Lux was drenched in celebratory alcohol as he spoke. The party was dying down around him in the visitors’ clubhouse at Camden Yards. The inevitable had been sealed: The Dodgers were headed to the playoffs again. Last October, Lux, a Wisconsin native, was in the crowd at Miller Park for the Dodgers’ four games in the National League Championship Series against the Milwaukee Brewers. He had concluded a breakout season with double-A Tulsa a month earlier.
This October, he probably will be in uniform, on the field, earlier than expected.
“Obviously, I want to be a part of this and compete and help the team win,” Lux said. “I wouldn’t say it’s too much pressure. Just being here and being around the guys, it’s been a lot of fun.”
The Dodgers named Lux and Josiah Gray as the Branch Rickey minor league player and pitcher of the year, respectively. Gray, a 21-year-old right-hander, was 11-2 with a 2.70 ERA and 147 strikeouts with 31 walks in 130 innings across three minor league teams in 2019. He finished the season with double-A Tulsa.
Gray and infielder Jeter Downs were acquired last offseason in the trade that sent Yasiel Puig, Matt Kemp, Alex Wood and Kyle Farmer to the Cincinnati Reds.