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Gavin Lux tracked the ball looking over his left shoulder, then quickly flipped his head back around to the right. He turned his body to make a catch in deep center field, then caught his balance after stumbling near the warning track.
It might have looked uncomfortable, with Lux — a natural infielder in his third MLB season — playing center field Sunday for only the fourth time in his big league career.
But if the 23-year-old was lacking in confidence, it didn’t show. Instead, Lux fired the ball back into the infield, then laughed with teammate Mookie Betts after one of the rare reminders he’s still adjusting to his new role.
“It’s actually been pretty fun,” Lux said this past weekend. “It’s a challenge, almost, just trying to get more comfortable.”
Lux didn’t have much to smile about earlier this season.
A former first-round pick who was once the Dodgers’ top prospect and 2019 minor league player of the year, Lux was supposed to develop into an everyday major leaguer in 2021. After overhauling both his swing and training regime last offseason, he seemed poised to fulfill expectations as the Dodgers’ second baseman of the future.
Instead, he started cold in April, fell into another slump in June, suffered a hamstring strain in July and — after the Dodgers acquired Trea Turner at the trade deadline to play second base — was eventually sent down to triple A in August.
By the start of September, it looked like Lux might get squeezed out of the Dodgers’ postseason plans for a second straight October.
But then, he got another chance at a new position.
With the Dodgers searching for outfield depth down the stretch, they had Lux play minor league games in the outfield for the first time in his professional career, then brought him back to the majors on Sept. 10.
Over the following two weeks, he made 10 starts in left field, overcoming some initial growing pains — including a communication error in one game that resulted in a collision with center fielder Cody Bellinger that fractured Bellinger’s left ribs — without committing an error.
Then, with Chris Taylor battling an injury last week, Lux played in center field in four consecutive games, including Friday when he made a long running catch in the gap to begin a double play.
“There’s just an aggressiveness,” Dodgers manager Dave Roberts said of watching Lux in center. “There’s no tentativeness as far as attacking the baseball. It’s interesting. Just being on the grass, it seems like it’s been freeing for him.”
It has coincided with a turnaround at the plate too.
In 14 games since coming back to the big leagues this month, Lux is batting .386, slugging .545 and has nine RBIs and four extra-base hits.
One big change, he said, has been in his approach at the plate. He is swinging more often (46.7% this season, compared to just over 41% in his first two seasons) yet whiffing less, instead doing damage early in counts rather than falling behind while waiting for a perfect pitch.
“I’m not up there as picky as I was before,” he said. “Before, I felt like I was always in two-strike counts. Now it’s like, if I get a good pitch to hit, end the at-bat there.”
Lux has also tinkered more with his mechanics. After talking with hitting coaches and looking over old film of his swing, he noticed his posture had become too hunched over, and that he was setting up too close to the plate.
“In years prior, I was way more off the plate, and [this season] a lot of teams have been pounding me in,” he said. “So just getting off the plate a little bit and giving myself some space has helped a lot too.”
And thanks to his capable performance in the outfield, Lux has played almost every day too, starting in all but one of the team’s 15 games since his return.
“Now, even if I’m struggling hitting, I can still find ways to mix in the lineup,” Lux said. “I think it just helps the team’s versatility overall. You look at years past with Kiké [Hernandez] and CT, [Taylor] just having guys that can bounce around, it helps a lot.”
Indeed, Lux’s newfound versatility is giving the team potential options for both the short- and long-term future.
In the grand scheme of things, Roberts said the club still views Lux as a middle infielder first. “But now,” Roberts added, “to have the optionality to make your club better, to plug holes — I think his value has increased for me.”
And come the playoffs, that added value could prove especially important.
Lux might not be the primary starter at any one position for the Dodgers once the postseason begins. But it’s becoming easier to envision him serving a role similar to what Hernandez and Joc Pederson — both of whom left the team last winter — did during the club’s World Series run last year, as interchangeable pieces who could match up against certain pitchers or come off the bench to deliver in the clutch.
“Everything is on the table,” Roberts said when asked if Lux could continue playing the outfield in the postseason. “It’s about putting the best players out there to give you the best chance to win. Giving Gavin this runway in the outfield has given us a better look and more options.”
And as Lux’s midgame laugh with Betts epitomized, it has breathed much-needed joy back into his burgeoning career.
“Whenever you get results, obviously it helps the confidence,” Lux said. “But I think I’m just playing more relaxed, and understanding I don’t have to hit .320 with 30 home runs for the Dodgers to be good.
“Obviously, we have a lot of really good players so right now I’m just trying to be a pest at the bottom [of the batting order] and get on base for Mookie and Corey [Seager] and Trea and everyone else at the top who obviously are All-Star players. Just trying to be a table-setter.”
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.