SAN FRANCISCO -- Yasiel Puig said he'll play whatever position the Los Angeles Dodgers ask him to play and do his best, but he couldn't contain a wide smile when he was pressed on which position is his favorite.
"I can run more in center field," he said in Spanish.
If there's one thing Puig is about, it's motion. It's energy -- overflowing stores of it. He seems to generate the stuff through nuclear fusion. He is so driven to be moving at all times, he admits he has felt constrained by the smaller patch of ground in right field. In center field, he can track down would-be doubles in the gap or would-be triples off the wall. He can throw his body full force into walls to take away home runs.
Asked if he had ever seen a player with such nonstop energy, Dodgers manager Don Mattingly said simply, "Nope."
At times, the Dodgers have actually worried about whether Puig sleeps at night. And, after fretting over the decision for a few days, Mattingly finally let his in-house force of nature out onto the widest part of the field Friday night.
Maybe it was the new position -- the Dodgers announced Puig would be their starting center fielder indefinitely before the game -- or maybe it was simply the four days off nursing a left hand injury. But Puig looked more frenetic than ever, tripling three times and scoring two runs in the Dodgers' 8-1 win over the San Francisco Giants in the first game of the Dodgers' biggest series yet this season.
He waited all game to get a little action in center field, but nobody hit a ball his way until the eighth inning when Hunter Pence lifted a lazy fly ball that way. Puig did, finally, make one nice running catch to snare a Buster Posey gapper at the warning track. Posey stared out there a long time, as if trying to figure out which Dodgers center fielder had the speed to catch that ball.
When it was over, Mattingly spoke in surprisingly subdued tones about Puig's night at the new position.
"I think he looked good. He got off the ball good, so everything went well tonight," Mattingly said. "It was a good start for us. We'll just kind of continue on with it and see what it looks like."
There are two primary reasons Mattingly would want to tamp down expectations for Puig playing center field. One is that he doesn't want to hurt the feelings of his other outfielders. Matt Kemp has made it clear he views himself as the team's rightful center fielder. Andre Ethier looks like as if playing time will be seriously curtailed if Puig is ensconced in center, and Kemp is playing every day in right. He and Carl Crawford bat from the same side, so there's really not even a natural platoon to be worked out in left. Who knows what Scott Van Slyke's role is now?
But probably the bigger reason Mattingly isn't making any sweeping statements is he's not quite sure it's going to work out in the long run. Talented as Puig is, there is always the chance that he will do something erratic, something that hurts the team. In the larger confines of the middle of the field, mistakes are magnified. Just three days earlier, Mattingly admitted that Puig plays the outfield "out of control," and that other Dodgers outfielders are scared he'll injure them since he rarely calls for balls and isn't easily called off.
"If Puig could stay focused, he's our best center fielder," was how Dodgers pitcher Zack Greinke, succinct as always, put it.
He's also their best hitter, at least this season, in which Hanley Ramirez has been unable to stay healthy consistently and hasn't produced at the level he did in 2013. Both were back in the lineup Friday, and the Dodgers had their deepest, most dangerous look in weeks, knocking Tim Lincecum out of the game in the fifth inning. Puig was the dynamo, but Ramirez also cracked an RBI single.
The Dodgers lined up their prime talent for this series, knowing full well they won't see the Giants again until September. They held Puig and Ramirez out of the entire Pittsburgh series even though Puig was apparently well enough to play Wednesday, since he wound up pinch hitting and even played a little center field. They lined up Greinke, Clayton Kershaw and Hyun-Jin Ryu to start these games well before the All-Star break.
Greinke (12-6) cruised through his seven innings despite a fairly tight strike zone from Mike Everitt, striking out 10 Giants. His efforts and Puig's were enough to rob this typically rowdy stadium of its energy by the fifth inning.
"It was hard to get excited after that," Greinke said.
But if you were the Dodgers watching the efforts of your newest center fielder, it was easy to get excited, if you let yourself.