The Los Angeles Dodgers, one of baseball’s storied franchises, concluded the 2017 regular season in impressive fashion. With a 5-3 win over the Colorado Rockies on Saturday, LA became the first team to win 104 games since the 2004 St. Louis Cardinals.
LA posted the best record in Major League Baseball while securing home-field advantage throughout the postseason. The 104 wins also set the franchise record since moving to California.
In the middle of all of that success? Former Cavalier Chris Taylor.
Taylor supplied the go-ahead RBI on Saturday to ensure that the road to 2017 World Series goes through Chavez Ravine. In a scenario eerily reminiscent of Taylor’s storybook hit in the 2011 Charlottesville NCAA Super Regional, Taylor slapped a 1-1, belt-high fastball from Rockies hurler Tyler Chatwood back up the middle to plate Yasiel Puig.
But that’s nothing new. Taylor’s been supplying go-ahead runs for the Dodgers all season long.
Taylor enjoyed a breakout season with a slash line of .288/.354/.497 while blasting 21 home runs over 139 games. As a leadoff hitter, his numbers are even better with a .291/.361/.531 line. He’s second on the team with 60 extra base hits, is tied with Justin Turner for fourth in home runs and RBI with 72, and leads the club with 17 stolen bases. This is on a team with All-Stars Turner, Cody Bellinger, who set the National League record for home runs for a rookie this season (surpassing Wally Berger and Frank Robinson), and the reigning National League Rookie of the Year Corey Seager.
Few saw this coming last June from a player that had hit just one home run in 383 major league at-bats since his big league debut with the Mariners in July of 2014.
Taylor’s time in Seattle was a mixed bag. He swung a decent bat in the minors, hitting .314/.401/.455 over 1,856 plate appearances in the Seattle farm system but struggled to make it consistently with the big league club. A fifth round draft selection by the Mariners in 2012, Taylor played in 84 games for Seattle in 2014-15, hitting .239/.296/.296 over 253 plate appearances. He garnered playing time at shortstop due to Brad Miller’s struggles and injuries, but couldn’t get over the hump to gain a roster foothold before Ketel Marte took over the position.
“I was kind of up-and-down there between Triple-A and the big leagues for a few years, especially my last time up,” Taylor said. “I think I got called up for one game, had a tough game and got sent back down to Triple-A.”
That was May 23, 2016 in a 5-0 loss to the Oakland A’s. Taylor made two errors in that game and new Mariners General Manager Jerry Dipoto soon quietly traded Taylor to Los Angeles for pitcher Zack Lee a month later.
“That was probably the most frustrating point in my career,” admits the Virginia Beach native. “I think it was time for a change and good for me to have a change of scenery. I couldn’t have asked for a better situation than being traded to the Dodgers. Being able to work with the coaches and the teammates here has really been a blessing.”
Taylor credits his improved hitting and power numbers to some off-season mechanical changes in his swing.
“I added a movement with my hand to create more bat speed, synched it up with a leg kick and changed my bat path a little bit to get on-plane a little earlier,” Taylor said. “The combination of all of those things have contributed to more power.”
Taylor hit just seven homers as a Wahoo in 156 games, but says his time in Charlottesville with the UVA program is where he developed the habit of always trying to find ways to better his game.
“I think in this game there’s always room to improve no matter how you’re performing,” Taylor said. “There’s so many aspects of the game and you can always get better at each and every one. That’s something they stressed to us when I was in school, that every year we want to get better; we want to improve. I think that’s why Virginia does such a good job preparing guys for the next level. So many guys go into UVA and come out better people and better players. We have a lot of guys that are having success at the major league level.”
While the hitting has earned him an everyday spot in skipper Dave Roberts’s lineup, the former Virginia shortstop’s versatility and sound defensive skills served as major contributing factors in earning Taylor playing time. With numerous injuries throughout the regular season at multiple positions, Taylor played third base, left field, shortstop, second base, and centerfield.
Once he got into the lineup, he made the most of it.
“With all the injuries it seems whatever position they’ve needed someone, it seems I could fill in and that kept me playing every day,” Taylor said. “I’ve had to fill in wherever there’s been an opening and I think my bat is what kept me in the lineup.”
Taylor emerged as a key cog for Roberts and the Dodgers in mid-summer as LA became the first team since 1912 – a span of 105 years – to go 43-7 over a 50-game stretch.
Considering the talent and conditioning of today’s players, the sabermetrics and specialization, Taylor says he’s never been on a team that went through that kind of run.
“That was pretty incredible,” Taylor said. “The fashion that we were winning, all the come-from-behind wins, the confidence level on the team, that no matter what the situation of the game, it felt like we were going to end up on top somehow. That run we went on was pretty special.”
The Dodgers came back down to earth with a dreadful stretch from late August through Sept. 11, however, where the team lost 16 of 17 games. They righted the ship with an eight-game, .500 stretch in mid-September and finished off the season winning seven of their last nine.
Taylor, who spends the offseason back home in Virginia Beach, will get few days off before the National League Division Series begins this Friday. He says he likes living in Los Angeles but admits he hasn’t done a lot of sight-seeing.
“I honestly don’t do much away from the field with our schedule,” he said. “I think we’ve had two off days since I’ve been here, when we weren’t traveling and on those days we’ve got team community events. I pretty much go to the field every day.”
When he does have an off day and the Dodgers have a series against a fellow Cavalier, Taylor says they try to make time to get together. He recently got the chance to visit with former Wahoos Jarret Parker (San Francisco) and John Hicks (Detroit).
“It depends on the schedule, especially if there is an off day we try to meet up,” said Taylor. “We usually all get together at spring training as well.”
Maybe Taylor can visit Hollywood or Beverly Hills between now and Friday. But Friday night, Taylor will make his first playoff start for the National League West Champion Dodgers. He will hit lead-off for the best team in baseball in 2017.