Commentary

Yasiel Puig missing in action in NLCS

With Ramirez injured and Puig MIA, the Dodgers seem to be devoid of a spark

Updated: October 13, 2013, 1:33 AM ET
By Mark Saxon | ESPNLosAngeles.com

ST. LOUIS -- Everybody seemed to wonder how Yasiel Puig would cope with the stress and scrutiny of postseason baseball. Would he show the proper maturity, play the game under control and respect the game's fundamentals?

As it turns out, all the pious observers of baseball decorum have had nothing to complain about. He's hitting cutoff men, generally taking acceptable routes. When he was actually getting on base, he played it safe. Self-awareness and restraint haven't been the issues.

Puig knows exactly what's going on. He just can't do anything about it.

[+] EnlargeYasiel Puig
Elsa/Getty ImagesYasiel Puig struck out in all four of his plate appearances on Saturday against the Cardinals. He is 0-for-10 with six strikeouts in the NLCS.
"They have really good pitchers that are making their pitches and a catcher who knows what he's doing and, right now, they're the ones who are executing," Puig said after the Dodgers' 1-0 loss in Game 2.

The question, it turns out, strangely, is can he find a way to reignite his talent instead of tapering down his emotions? Dodgers manager Don Mattingly inadvertently dropped the perfect nickname on Puig in spring training, when he said the mercurial outfielder played like a "wild horse." The wild part hasn't been a problem in this National League Championship Series, but what happened to the horse?

The St. Louis Cardinals seem to have an endless stream of pitchers who throw 95 mph and up with reliable location and bankable secondary pitches. In other words, the Dodgers aren't entirely to blame for stumbling into this 0-2 hole in the series. But with Hanley Ramirez dealing with a painful rib injury that could keep him out for a good chunk – if not the rest – of the NLCS, and Andre Ethier also hobbled by a left ankle injury, this is a perilous time for Puig to disappear.

The most visible baseball player in the game a few months ago has been nowhere to be found in these games. Puig wore the dreaded golden sombrero Sunday, striking out in all four of his plate appearances. For the series, he is 0-for-10 with six strikeouts.

Ramirez and Puig were the twin pistons that got the Dodgers moving again in June. Puig arrived from Double-A Chattanooga and Ramirez came off the disabled list. Now, the Dodgers seem devoid of a spark, their fate again mirroring the arcs of their two powerful right-handed hitters. They have scored two runs in the first 22 innings of this series and wasted masterful performances by their two aces, Clayton Kershaw and Zack Greinke, who together have allowed just two runs in 14 innings while striking out 15 batters.

Let's not act as if the teams are dealing with comparable injuries. Yeah, the Cardinals are without Allen Craig and they haven't had Rafael Furcal all year, but the Dodgers lost Matt Kemp in the final game of the regular season and now they're faced with playing without Ramirez, the best hitter on the planet this season not named Miguel Cabrera.

"Every time he's in the lineup, he's probably the best guy on the field," Kershaw said, "... You can't dwell on that, but it definitely doesn't help our chances too much."

The Dodgers have bounced back before, as you might recall. They were 9 ½ games out of first place on June 21 and 12 games under .500, their manager possibly two more losses from losing his job, and they ripped off one of the most impressive streaks in baseball history, going 42-8 through late August.

It might take something equally dramatic in a smaller sample size, because their offensive depth is strained to the breaking point and the upcoming pitching matchups are far from favorable. If Ramirez isn't playing and Puig continues this miserable funk, the Dodgers can see the end from here, and it can come so suddenly in the playoffs.

Manager Don Mattingly's analytical skills seem at their most fine-tuned when he is dissecting the fortunes of a hitter. We shouldn't be surprised by this since he was one of the best hitters of the 1980s and a longtime hitting coach before becoming a manager. What he has seen from Puig is a young hitter being bandied about by a good pitching staff and a veteran catcher, Yadier Molina, who has mixed off-speed pitches and fastballs in combinations that have kept Puig flummoxed.

In the sixth inning, facing young flamethrower Michael Wacha, Puig looked absolutely lost. He swung so hard on the first pitch, he fell down. He swung so feebly at the last pitch, his wrists never broke. He put his head down and walked back to the dugout.

"Yadier is doing a nice job as far as yo-yoing him back and forth and keeping him in the rocking chair," Mattingly said. "That's where I think we see his inexperience kind of come up, how to handle what's going on and what he's looking for. But with him, at any moment, any swing has a chance to tie a game or be a big hit."

In other words, Mattingly seemed to be saying Puig can take the team down with him, or he can change the direction this series has taken.

If not him, who? Adrian Gonzalez is a steady producer, but he was steadily compiling numbers as the Dodgers were getting off to a miserable start in April and May. Carl Crawford was a dynamic force in the NLDS, but as a leadoff hitter, he's hardly the prime candidate to rescue the offense. Without Ethier and Ramirez, the Dodgers are forced to play their two scrappy little guys, Nick Punto and Skip Schumaker, at the same time, and that's not exactly creating an intimidating look.

So, if dominance by Kershaw and Greinke wasn't enough to do it, what else will -- aside from the two players who changed everything so dramatically four months ago? You can't ask Ramirez to do it if his ribs are so sore he can't swing a bat.

"We've got enough talent on this team to do it," second baseman Mark Ellis said.

That might be true, but it certainly doesn't look that way now that the Dodgers have spent their two big arms and have seen their two big guns defused, both physically or mentally.

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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