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Did Albert Pujols make Yasiel Puig a better outfielder?

3/19/2015

GLENDALE, Ariz. -- The Los Angeles Dodgers have learned that Yasiel Puig's development tends to ebb and flow with the crises, large and small, that have dotted his career. After someone publicly embarrasses him or confronts him, he tends to listen and, in some cases, to adjust. The rest of the criticism, either from the media, opposing players or even sometimes teammates, seems to slide off him.

One of those lessons came last Aug. 4 and was administered by a man who seems destined for the Hall of Fame, Los Angeles Angels slugger Albert Pujols.

Josh Hamilton hit a lazy fly ball to center field at Dodger Stadium. Puig made his usual nonchalant catch with nary a glance at Pujols, who was on first base. Pujols, 34 and bothered by foot injuries, tagged up, put his head down and sprinted for second base.

After looking up, startled, then rushed in a throw that reached Hanley Ramirez too late, Puig turned around and wore an embarrassed smile. He partially covered his face with his hand. Pujols later mocked Puig’s one-handed, sideways catching style and had a laugh about it with his teammates, Hamilton and Mike Trout.

When the next inning resumed, Hall of Fame broadcaster Vin Scully said on the Dodgers’ broadcast, "For Puig, a painful lesson, an embarrassing lesson, and it was Pujols who took him to school."

Puig did, however, study the lesson plan. From that moment through the playoffs, Puig turned his body at the proper angle before catching the ball. He kept an eye on opposing runners, even those on bases from which one wouldn’t expect them to run.

"On Yasiel, nobody should tag and Albert’s not a burner, so he’s basically anticipating that Yasiel’s going to be taking something for granted, so he’s taking advantage of the way he plays," Dodgers manager Don Mattingly said. "That’s what he did. It was a good lesson for Yasiel."

In a Spanish-language conversation with Marly Rivera of ESPN Deportes, Puig acknowledged that he took the lesson to heart, in part because of the respect he has for Pujols, a 14-year veteran with three MVP trophies.

"I have admired him all my life," Puig said.

"When he started running, I thought, 'Wow, that’s my friend and he should not be really running like that, he’s a veteran," Puig said, "But he’s got that Dominican blood in him, and he did it. I laughed deep inside, but when I got to see the replay on YouTube, I really laughed out loud, because he got me."

Noting that the Angels are the Dodgers’ opponent at Camelback Ranch on Thursday afternoon, Puig said, "Now, we get to play against each other once again, and I will keep close tabs on him, though I know he won’t run. That is certainly an experience I learned from."

The Dodgers think they see the most growth from Puig after such public embarrassments. After Mattingly called him out for swinging wildly and running the bases recklessly in Australia at the start of last season, Puig asked for a team meeting back in L.A. so he could listen to his teammates’ opinions of his playing style. According to a person in that room, Puig heard an earful. At times, the Dodgers saw him working to clean up some of the finer points of his game after that.

After the Pujols lesson, Mattingly said he noticed Puig getting the ball in more quickly.

"It’s only bad if you continue to do it," Mattingly said. "The guy making the same mistakes over and over either is not trying or just doesn’t care. Yasiel cares what people think."

The Dodgers have been heartened by Puig’s level of commitment and focus this spring. He showed up in better shape than he did last spring, and he has generally arrived well before he’s required to be in the clubhouse. His performance thus far hasn’t been impressive -- he is batting .174 -- but he hit .167 last spring, then hit .344 and slugged .615 in the first two months of the season.

Mattingly said he’s not concerned that Puig’s struggles are tied to the slump he fell into after the All-Star break and into the playoffs last year.

"He looks fine. He’s hit some balls decent," Mattingly said.