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How far can Puig carry the Dodgers?

6/25/2013

LOS ANGELES -- A TV reporter caught up with Los Angeles Dodgers utility infielder Nick Punto after L.A.'s 3-1 win over the San Francisco Giants on Monday night and asked him about -- get this -- Yasiel Puig.

Punto talked about Puig's abundant talent, then slipped this in: "Hopefully, we can ride him into the playoffs."

Kind of sounds presumptuous at first, doesn't it, a team that is nine games under .500 zeroing in on July -- that has been breathing the exhaust fumes of the four other teams in its division all season -- talking about the playoffs? And yet, this is no ordinary ride Puig is providing.

The impressive part isn't the quantity of Puig's production -- the .442 batting average, seven home runs, 14 RBIs in 20 games. … OK, come to think of it, those numbers are the impressive part. But they're not what has the Dodgers wondering just how far a talent like this can carry them.

What has inspired the latest stirrings of hope are the qualitative aspects of Puig's game, the way he has backed off the plate to adjust to the relentless barrage of inside fastballs, the strong hands that allow him to flick an 85-mph changeup over the wall in right field.

"Yasiel is a phenomenal talent right now," Dodgers catcher A.J. Ellis said. "The league's trying to figure him out and he's making them scratch their heads a lot."

Clearly, something like a book -- or, maybe it's just a hazy outline at this point -- is forming on Puig. Bust him hard inside with fastballs, maybe even make him dive in the dirt to avoid a nasty collision with a baseball, then flutter something slow around the outside corner. It's kind of a classic scouting report for a right-handed power hitter with long arms: hard in, soft away.

But it only works if the execution is borderline perfect. Madison Bumgarner wasn't far from perfect Monday, judging by what the rest of the lineup did against him.

"You see them try to go to another area and he flips one in the corner, for a homer," Dodgers manager Don Mattingly said. "It's a game of cat and mouse."

So far, the only thing Puig has saved the Dodgers from is embarrassment. Had they lost Monday, they would have dropped six in a row to their rivals. Had they lost Monday, they would have still been searching for their first three-game winning streak since the opening week of the season.

"You would tend to say that's taken a little too long. But better late than never, right?" Mattingly said.

Hard to know if he's talking about the winning streak or Puig.