Gavin Lux is a key contributor in Dodgers' rout of Nationals

Los Angeles Dodgers' Gavin Lux hits a two-run single during the fifth inning of the team's baseball game against the Washington Nationals at Nationals Park, Wednesday, April 24, 2024, in Washington. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

Back in the spring, Gavin Lux’s biggest problem was throwing the ball.

Then the regular season started, and the Dodgers’ once highly touted infielder suddenly looked unable to hit.

A month into his return from missing 2023 with a knee injury, Lux arrived at Nationals Park this week with just nine hits in 19 games, a .148 batting average that ranked 10th-worst in the majors among hitters with 50 at-bats, and a seemingly dwindling amount of time to reaffirm his place as a core member of the team.

Manager Dave Roberts hadn’t lost faith in Lux, the former first-round draft pick who underwent knee ligament surgery last March after a spring training injury.

Read more: How better plate discipline has helped Shohei Ohtani become more dangerous for the Dodgers

But Lux’s own self-belief seemed to be wavering, after his defensive struggles in camp this year cost him his starting shortstop spot, and his poor start at the plate raised questions about his role as the regular second baseman near the bottom of the lineup.

“Baseball is so much mental,” Lux said

Which is why, in an 11-2 Dodgers win over the Washington Nationals on Wednesday night, Lux’s pair of ground-ball singles felt like something much more important to the trajectory of his season.

In a nine-run beatdown that featured four hits each from Mookie Betts and Will Smith, three doubles from Shohei Ohtani — who continues to lead the majors in batting average (.371), slugging percentage (.695) and OPS (1.128) — and a first career win for rookie pitcher Landon Knack, Lux wasn’t exactly the star of the night.

His first single came on a bouncing ball the other way in the second inning, finding a hole through the left side of the infield for just his third hit in the last two weeks.

His second knock was courtesy of even quieter contact, with Lux pulling a ground ball that bounced five times before evading the diving glove of second baseman Luis García Jr.

Still, in what was his first two-hit game since the opening week of the season, Lux’s hits carried a weight of significance.

He came around to score his first time on base, helping the Dodgers jump to an early 3-0 lead. Then, he all but ended the game with his two-out hit in the fifth, driving in a pair of runs — his first RBIs since April 13 — to turn a 4-2 nailbiter in a comfortable four-run Dodgers lead.

Read more: Bullpen comes to the rescue as Dodgers open trip with win over Nationals

“That second hit with two outs was huge,” Roberts said. “That was a back-breaker for them.”

More than that, it was the first time in weeks — if not all season — Lux looked like the steady contributor he had been before his injury in 2022, coupling his improved defense at second (where he has yet to commit an error this year) with his once-signature ability to hit the ball to all parts of the field.

“I’d like to think today was something he could build on going forward,” Roberts said. “It was a really good step in the right direction.”

It was the kind of night Dodgers coaches had sensed was coming from the Lux; optimistic that despite his poor numbers — Lux also entered the game with 16 strikeouts, six walks and an OPS of just .388, seventh-worst in the majors — his swing was finally starting to trend positively.

During batting practice sessions in Washington on Tuesday (when Lux was off in the Dodgers’ series-opener) and Wednesday, Lux started hitting more line drives consistently to left field — a sign to hitting coach Aaron Bates he was rediscovering his pre-injury mechanics.

“He’s getting his feels back and seeing, mobility-wise, what he’s capable of doing,” Bates said, noting the difficult physical recalibration that comes with the torn ACL Lux suffered last year. “He’s a twitchy guy. So when’s comfortable staying on fastballs the other way, or staying through something soft [to the pull side], that’s what you want to look for.”

Lux had also been trying to reframe his mindset. He knew there would be rust after a year spent in rehabilitation mode. But as his early-season slump stretched into its fourth week, he tried to treat any little positive, such as a hard-hit out or clean defensive plays at second, as needed sources of self-belief.

“Especially when you’re slumping, you just trying to keep building momentum and then hopefully bring it into the next day,” said Lux, who has still started all but one game against opposing right-handed pitchers. “It’s a tough mental game, so you just gotta keep rolling.”

The Dodgers are giving Lux continued leeway to try and gain a head of steam.

Before the game, Roberts praised Lux’s work ethic, and said he wanted the infielder to get 150 plate appearances before making a sweeping evaluation about his game.

“Given that he hasn’t played in a year, I don’t think that any less is a fair gauge,” Roberts said. “I just don’t. It’s almost in line with a rookie. Not to say that he’s a rookie because he’s clearly not. But … you need a sample.”

By the end of Wednesday night, Lux was up to 72 plate appearances. And after most of the early ones had been mostly forgettable, he finally enjoyed one game of productive reprieve.

“You just got to keep going with it,” Lux said. “It’ll eventually even out.”

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This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.

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