The nurturing of Yasiel Puig's power

June, 7, 2013
6/07/13
11:15
PM PT
LOS ANGELES -- This Yasiel Puig experience has been so surreal, Dodgers manager Don Mattingly has taken to daydreaming about Puig's next exploit as he sits there on the bench or stands at the railing.

Often, the dream plays out right in front of him a few seconds later. He guessed Puig was going to hit a grand slam Thursday right before Puig hit a grand slam.

[+] EnlargeYasiel Puig
Stephen Dunn/Getty ImagesYasiel Puig hit his fourth home run in five games with the Dodgers and it helped L.A. to a 10-inning win over Atlanta.
Friday, he envisioned Puig throwing out the go-ahead runner at the plate in the eighth inning and then winning it with an inside-the-park home run.

OK, that one didn't happen.

But Puig did hit a crucial home run to tie the score in the sixth inning to set up the Dodgers' winning rally in the 10th inning to beat the Atlanta Braves 2-1. Timing is everything for the Dodgers' young slugger. He has yet to allow a pinnacle moment to pass without doing something dramatic.

"It's just crazy stuff," Mattingly said. "Nothing really surprises us anymore."

Friday was the kind of game the pre-Puig Dodgers seemed to lose every night. They'd struggle to score and keep it close with good pitching. Then, it seemed, they would stand around waiting for somebody to beat them. Puig seems to have eradicated that mindset.

"I think he gives us the energy that we were missing, you know?" said veteran catcher Ramon Hernandez. "[Carl] Crawford is hurt, [Matt] Kemp is hurt, Hanley [Ramirez] is barely playing. He's someone who plays every day with that energy, has fun, and passes that all the way around the field."

It might look as if Puig is going it alone, but that's far from the case. He played all of 52 minor league games before getting here (contrast that with Mike Trout's 286 games in the minors), so the Dodgers are aware he's going to need guidance.

He has two team-appointed handlers, including a language teacher. Adrian Gonzalez has been mentoring him since he arrived. But the key conversations have been in the batting cage. He has been working closely with hitting coach Mark McGwire since the earliest days of spring training.

You can see Big Mac's impact on Puig's swing. He has shown power practically from foul pole to foul pole, allowing him to be a far better hitter than if he were looking for pitches in particular zones and trying to pull them. Thus far, Puig has homered to right field twice, left field once and center field once.

There aren't many baseball players who are as big as Puig, at 6-foot-3 and 245 pounds, but McGwire was one of them.

"Obviously, Mac's a power guy. He understands the swing, where guys are cutting it off," Mattingly said. "I know he worked with [Puig] on wanting to stay through it, use the center of the field and keep the bat going. Those are things I know they worked on in spring."

So far, so good. Puig has a 1.105 slugging percentage. There are two statistical anomalies from Puig's performance Friday. The Dodgers are hopeful his career path will follow one more closely than the other. The last player to hit four home runs in his first five games before Puig was the New York Mets' Mike Jacobs in 2005. The last player whose first four career home runs were a solo shot, two-run shot, three-run shot and grand slam was Frank Howard.

Jacobs is playing at Triple-A for the Reno Aces. Howard, who started as a Dodger, hit 382 career home runs, won a rookie of the year award and played in four All-Star games.

When you combine freak talent with meticulous preparation, crazy things can happen.

Mark Saxon

ESPNLosAngeles.com
Mark Saxon is a staff writer for ESPNLosAngeles.com. He spent six years at the Orange County Register, and began his career at the Oakland Tribune, where he started an 11-year journey covering Major League Baseball. He has also covered colleges, including USC football and UCLA basketball.

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TEAM LEADERS

WINS LEADER
Clayton Kershaw
WINS ERA SO IP
16 1.73 194 161
OTHER LEADERS
BAY. Puig .301
HRA. Gonzalez 18
RBIA. Gonzalez 90
RD. Gordon 73
OPSY. Puig .882
ERAC. Kershaw 1.73
SOC. Kershaw 194