Yasiel Puig puts his stamp on NLCS
The Dodgers' outfielder made his mark, but one Cardinal didn't like what he saw
LOS ANGELES -- The moment Yasiel Puig flipped his bat through the Southern California sky -- after hitting a baseball that didn't even leave the park -- he was already The Story of Game 3 of the National League Championship Series.
Holy cow. You have to admit, whatever you think of this man: He has a gift.
A gift for seizing the moment, for better or for worse. A gift for doing stuff that gets the whole planet talking, for better or for worse. A gift for lumping the million and one plot lines around him into a category we refer to, in the media biz, as "In other news …"
And Monday night, at Dodger Stadium, he did it again.
So we'd love to tell you all about Hyun-Jin Ryu's Koufax/Drysdale/Hershiser impression. We'd love to be spinning poetry about Hanley Ramirez's gritty return to the baseball field. We'd love to delve more deeply into how the Los Angeles Dodgers' lineup finally sprang to life against the great Adam Wainwright.
But then Yasiel Puig flipped his bat through the Southern California sky.
So we'll get to all that other stuff that went into the Dodgers' 3-0 victory over the St. Louis Cardinals, on a night that transformed the NLCS into "a series," some other time. But first …
It's time to ask one more time: Can you believe that Yasiel Puig?
Once again, on Monday night, his incredible talent leaped off the field at you.
His energy did more to light up Dodger Stadium than the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power.
His smile, after his electrifying fourth-inning RBI triple, reminded us how much fun this man has playing baseball every single day.
But then there's the other side of his story.
When he sends his bat pirouetting through the night on a ball that doesn't even reach the seats. ... When he runs up the first-base line with one finger pointed toward the stars. … When he pulls into third base with both fists thrust into the air. … When he's standing on the base, leading a whole stadium in cheers. … Um, is that a good thing?
Well, depends whom you ask. Boy, does it depend whom you ask.
"It's Puig, man," said his teammate, Carl Crawford. "He's been doing it all year. I mean, I know it's one of those things where a rookie probably shouldn't be doing that kind of stuff. But they love it around here. So I guess it's OK."
Oh, there's definitely truth in that statement: They love it around here. But suppose you're not from around here. Suppose, for instance, you play for the St. Louis Cardinals.
Let's just say "love" wouldn't describe how the other team on the field Monday night felt about Puig's inimitable, eh, exuberance.
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"As a player, I just think he doesn't know [about how to act]," Cardinals outfielder Carlos Beltran said. "That's what I think. He really doesn't know. He must think that he's still playing somewhere else.
"He has a lot of passion," Beltran said. "No doubt about that. Great ability. Great talent. I think, with time, he'll learn that you've got to act with a little bit more calm.
"So you know, he's going to learn. It's going to take him time, but he's going to learn. When you try to do those things sometimes, you know, you get that attention. And you don't want to wake up nobody. I always thought if you hit a home run off a pitcher, you've got to make him believe he made a mistake. You don't wake him up. Or next time, the pitcher's going to be more focused with you and he's going to try harder to get you out.
"So he will learn," Beltran concluded. "I don't think he's a bad kid. I just think he doesn't know right now."
But when Beltran was asked, "Did Yasiel Puig just 'wake up' the Cardinals?" he made it obvious that the alarm bells had just sounded -- without actually saying that.
"I'm in the outfield," Beltran said, trying to choose his words carefully. "I mean, it's not great. To me, I don't like it. But what can I say? I don't play for them. I just play over here. I just need to do my job. It is what it is."
Right. But what the heck is it, anyway?
"I know, with his exuberance, sometimes the opposing team might not like it," Dodgers outfielder Jerry Hairston Jr said. "But they've just got to understand, he doesn't mean anything by it. He just wants to do well.
"I totally understand the opposite side and their view of it. But what I would say to them is, you've got to remember, this guy is like a 16-year-old kid playing Little League. He's just so passionate, so emotional about the game. He really means no disrespect. He really means no harm. He just got excited tonight. He got a really big hit for us."
That hit came with two outs in the fourth inning, moments after the Dodgers had finally broken a gruesome 22-inning string of scoreless innings, and were enjoying life with an actual 1-0 lead. But with Wainwright on the mound and the National League's most dangerous lineup on the other side of the field, let's just say that one run didn't exactly feel like 10.
And then, here he came, this 22-year-old fireball of energy, ready to put his stamp on this series. Finally.
He was 0-for-11, with seven strikeouts, as he rocked himself into the box, with a runner on third and 53,000 people chanting his name. He had actually struck out in five at-bats in a row. And after plate ump Mike Everitt had rung him up in his previous at-bat, Puig stared at him so intently, you could feel the fury flashing from his eyeballs from home plate to the Hollywood Freeway.
But this was a chance for him to rewrite his NLCS story, and give his team a desperately needed second run. And when Puig rocketed a 2-and-1 cutter off the base of the fence, watched it fly for a little too long and then still had enough premium unleaded in his tank to rocket into third base, he provided the single most breathtaking moment of this series for the Dodgers.
Rally towels spun in the night. Magic Johnson fist-bumped everyone in sight. The roar that filled Chavez Ravine sounded like a 767 taking off at LAX. And as Puig stood on third base, leading this symphony, it left no doubt exactly what sort of unique magic he has brought to this ballpark and this franchise.
"You've got a stadium of 55,000 people yelling so loud," Hairston said, "it sounded like 155,000."
And it couldn't have been more obvious, on this night, that Puig feeds off their energy, just as they feed off his. But until that moment, until that swing of the bat, he might have been playing with too much energy. And even his teammates felt the need to sit him down before this game and counsel him on how to channel it.
"He and I were eating today before the game, before [batting practice]," Hairston said. "We had the TV on, and the guys on TV were kind of critiquing him and how he's hit in this series. So I said, 'Listen, remember, it's just two games. So try not to think about those two games. Just go back to what you were doing during the season. So don't worry about what happened in the past. And just be you.'
"And I told him, 'If your energy level right now is about a 15 on a scale of 10, try to get it to a 7, because it's going to end up being a 10. And that's the biggest thing. Just pull back the throttle a little.'"
So he did -- just enough to whack that triple, go 2-for-3 and still find a way to rock the house. It's an act that's not for everyone. But afterward, Puig tried his best to explain, through his translator, what it is that makes him play the way he plays and act the way he acts.
This was the night, he said, when "I was able to get back to really having fun. That's all it really is for me, is having fun playing the game."
And if we would all just travel to Cuba, he said, we would see many players who play this way and act this way.
"In Cuba," he said, "you always see a lot of emotion on the field."
But when you translate that emotion to this land, to this culture, not everyone gets what it's all about. And by "not everyone," we mean: nobody on the teams he plays against. We've heard the grumbling about him from players all over the National League for the past four months. And it won't be subsiding any time soon.
"Look, his style is not my style," said Michael Young, who has played with him now for just six weeks. "But I love his passion for the game. He truly is not trying to show anybody up. It's just the way he plays. I'm sure as time goes on, and he's played this game for a while, some of those things will get tapered down a little bit. But you have to remember, he's gone through a lot of things in his life that a lot of guys in here wouldn't understand."
Young is one of many of Puig's teammates who have tried to explain to him why people react to him the way they react.
"And you know what? He's very receptive," Young said. "He's like, 'OK, OK, I understand. I get it.' That's just the way he's always played baseball. He played it not just in a different country, but almost like a different world. It's not like he grew up in the Dominican or Puerto Rico. He grew up in a lot different world than any of us."
So one of these days, when he isn't 22 anymore, and when he has played more baseball in this land, in this world, maybe this won't be how he goes about it. And maybe then, everyone -- not just the occupants of Dodger Stadium -- will learn to appreciate the joy and the talent instead of focusing on that other stuff.
But that time isn't this time. So there's no use in any of us getting any more worked up about this now than we got in June or July or August. All that matters, for Yasiel Puig and the Dodgers, right now is that there's an NLCS to be won -- and it's now a lot more winnable than it was 24 hours ago.
"He'll learn," Young said. "But right now, in a postseason series, I want him to play exactly the way he feels most comfortable. The last thing I want him to do is start thinking about peeling back his emotions -- in Game 4 of the NLCS."
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