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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 being 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. “I mean, he hit a single just as well as I hit a single. I just happened to have J.T. on second base. He put together an unbelievable at-bat, and just for myself, I tried 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 in Cody, but I do think that shortening the swing, choking up and controlling the barrel gives you a better chance for contact,” Dodgers manager Dave Roberts said. “Right there, we didn’t need a home run. We needed to move the ball forward and get a base hit.”
Roberts thinks Bellinger’s strikeout in his previous at-bat may have helped produce the game-winner two innings later.
“You saw close to 10 pitches and he grinded and competed, and that last at-bat, there was just a fight in there,” Roberts said. “It wasn’t about mechanics. It was just about a fight. It was me versus you. Cody versus Doval, who’s got tremendous stuff.
“He got a slider that backed up, and he stayed through the middle of the field and got a huge hit. So like I’ve said, Cody’s grown a lot because of this adversity, and for him to come up with a big hit, I’m very happy for him.”
Lux has dealt with his share of adversity as well, the former Baseball America minor league player of the year spending much of 2020 in the minor leagues and getting demoted several times this season.
But he has played with an air of confidence in this division series, some of it, perhaps, stemming from a conversation he had with Turner and former Dodgers second baseman Chase Utley before his first-ever playoff series in 2019.
“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.
“Every time you go into a playoff at-bat you’re gonna face a guy who’s really good, really tough, so having that four-for-four feeling is what you need,” Lux said after the game, then adding: “If you don’t have that confidence in these situations, these pitchers are really good, so you have to have that mindset.”
Lux did not start in the first three games of the series, but he reached base four times in Game 4, smacking two singles, drawing two walks and scoring a run in the Dodgers’ 7-2 win.
That 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 did not get a lot of action defensively Thursday, but he did make a nice running catch of Darin Ruf’s drive to deep right-center for the second out of the third inning. He made a much bigger impact with his bat, which is why he was in the lineup in the first place.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.