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Dodgers’ Chris Taylor is baseball’s latest breakout star

Chris Taylor of the Dodgers rounds the bases

Chris Taylor of the Dodgers rounds the bases after hitting a home run against the Cubs in Game 3 of the NLCS at Wrigley Field on Oct. 17, 2017, in Chicago. Credit: Getty Images / Jonathan Daniel

CHICAGO — In trading for Chris Taylor in June of 2016, the Dodgers could see the athleticism, the foot speed, and the contact ability that would make him a middle-of-the-diamond player. What was missing was the pop.

But that began to change about this one year ago, when Taylor began making the swing changes that would transform him from a fringe big leaguer into the spark atop a Dodgers lineup that entered Wednesday one win away from the franchise’s first World Series appearance since 1988.

“I really didn’t know what to expect,” Taylor said this week. “I was coming in, I had to feel uncomfortable. That was the biggest thing. I knew I had to kind of make that drastic change right away and get out of my comfort zone. Had no expectations going into it. I always have confidence in my ability, and obviously I was hoping it would come.”

With that, the 27-year-old Taylor became the latest breakout star in baseball’s fly-ball revolution. With the changes came the power that was missing when the Mariners sent Taylor to the Dodgers in exchange for pitching prospect Zach Lee.

“To his credit, last October, he pretty aggressively went about making swing changes,” said Dodgers president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman. “And last January when he was in L.A., taking BP, it was apparent and it was pretty exciting.”

Depth became the hallmark of the Dodgers’ 104-win juggernaut during the regular season, and Taylor personified that focus.

“We felt that we had some really hard decisions to make at the beginning of spring training,” Friedman said. “As it played out, it was what we expected. We had very long discussions at the end of spring training as we were narrowing it down. We kept reminding ourselves as we were hitting our heads against the wall in these conversations that it was a great problem to have.”

At the end of those wall-banging conversations, Taylor found himself on the outside looking in, sent to Triple-A Oklahoma City after missing out on a spot as a utilityman. But he left camp knowing that his adjustments had already begun to pay off.

“To say I expected it to happen as fast as it did, I’d be lying,” Taylor said this week. “Pretty much I felt really good right in spring training, which I was pretty shocked to see that kind of results that fast.”

When an injury opened the door for Taylor in late April, Taylor flourished, hitting .288/.354/.496 with 21 homers, 34 doubles and 17 stolen bases. It was a marked contrast to his punchless first three seasons in the big leagues, when he posted a .234/.289/.309 line in 318 plate appearances.

“It played out in a way that he forced us to put him in the lineup and keep him there,” Friedman said. “And we haven’t looked back.”

Taylor’s versatility has drawn comparisons to the Cubs’ Ben Zobrist. Just in the NLCS, Taylor has started two games in centerfield and two games at shortstop, which has helped the Dodgers mask the absence of Corey Seager because of a back injury.

Taylor’s pop has played in the postseason. Entering Game 4 of the NLCS, Taylor was hitting .240 (6-for-25) while tying for the team lead with Yasiel Puig with 16 total bases. He was slugging .640 with a double, triple and a pair of homers.

In Game 3, it was Taylor’s solo shot in the third inning that put the Dodgers ahead for good, just as he did in Game 1. In franchise history, Taylor joined Dusty Baker in the 1977 NLCS as one of just two players with game-winning homers in the same postseason series. The last in the big leagues to do it was Daniel Murphy, during his magical postseason home run binge in 2015 with the Mets.

For Taylor, all of it has flowed from a simply willingness to attempt reinvention.

“You’re not always going to be comfortable in situations,” Dodgers teammate Andre Ethier said. “You’re going to be uncomfortable a lot of times, and it’s how you embrace that. Young guys like him that keep leading the way for us to ride their coattails.”

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