As the Los Angeles Dodgers bowed out of the 2013 NLCS, the player that helped spark their remarkable run through June, July and August, Yasiel Puig, suffered through a difficult series at the plate, in the field and through the voices of critics.
Puig burst onto the scene in Junr, electrifying the Dodgers, winning over the fans of Los Angeles and captivating baseball fans around the country. He was must-watch television on a nightly basis. From the literal (.319/.391/.534) to the figurative, Puig was a comet, soaring from Double-A Chattanooga to rescue a season on the brink.
In the end, he and the Dodgers fizzled. Losers in St. Louis by a 9-0 margin in Game 6, the NL West champions are heading home to retool, reload and vie for a World Series in 2014. Despite a regular season that should surely end in a first or second place finish in the National League Rookie of the Year voting, along with a smattering of MVP consideration, Puig will face question marks in the offseason due to a difficult NLCS and a strange, twisting narrative having to do with his personality.
To be fair, Puig wasn't good enough in the NLCS. Asked to carry more of an offensive load and hit in the middle of the order, the 22-year-old star didn't produce the way his team needed. After posting a .471/.500/.529 slash line against the Atlanta Braves in the NLDS, Puig exits his first League Championship Series with an ugly .227/.261/.318 line. On defense, his overaggressive demeanor led to two errors in the deciding game.
Outside of an electrifying triple in Game 3, Puig's impact was minor in the series. Prior that water cooler moment, the Dodgers right fielder went 0-for-10 in Games 1 and 2, left runners on base in one-run losses and seemed overwhelmed by the St. Louis pitching staff.
Over the next few months, expect writers, fans and rival executives to use broad narratives to explain Puig's sudden decline during the biggest moments, innings and plate appearances of his season. While it can be convenient to blame his seemingly cavalier attitude, showboating style and flair for the dramatic, those personality traits had little to do with an NLCS slump.
Instead, blame the youth and inexperience of a player that entered the postseason with less than 400 career at-bats in the majors. Against a pitching staff as talented and well-schooled as St. Louis, led by their all-world catcher in Yadier Molina, Puig's weaknesses were exposed.
At the plate, St. Louis' plan was clear: bust Puig inside, disrupting his ability to extend his arms and drive the ball the other way. Outside of the ball he hit off Adam Wainwright in Game 3 that became the showboating triple, the Cardinals' staff stuck to the game plan and it worked.
Clearly, pitchers adjusted against Puig on an at-bat by at-bat case during the regular season, yet he still thrived. The NLCS, however, was different because Puig simply wasn't ready to adjust on the fly when the pressure of leading his team and batting in the middle of the order was placed upon him due to Hanley Ramirez's rib injury.
When this season started, the Dodgers looked at Puig, obviously talented from what we watched of him all summer and fall, and decided to send him to Double-A. Part of that was due to a trio of expensive, veteran outfielders that all needed everyday playing time. Regardless, a team with a $200-plus million payroll didn't place Puig on the opening day roster so he could mature, improve and work on his game.
After injuries and losses piled up, the Dodgers called on Puig. What he lacked in veteran savvy and maturity, he made up for in raw talent. The Dodgers didn't expect Puig to play the role he ultimately did and can't be surprised by his struggles on the NLCS stage.
With the World Series starting next week, baseball will quickly shift to the offseason, hot stove and talk of 2014's breakout stars. When it comes to assessing the present and future of Yasiel Puig, block out the noise. His personality and stardom won't be the reason for success or failure in Los Angeles. His talent and maturation will be.
His expressive personality and demonstrative on-field behavior are part of his dynamic and unique game and far, far from a reason for decline. Puig's issues in the 2013 NLCS had more to do with sinking action on Michael Wacha's fastball than failing to run as hard out of the box as some fans opined for while screaming at their televisions.
If the Dodgers qualify for the 2014 postseason, Puig will be better equiped to handle the moment, expectations and criticism that goes along with struggle, regardless of the regular season numbers and moments that he provides.
In the end, Puig wasn't ready to take a franchise to the World Series. On a roster that includes Adrian Gonzalez, Clayton Kershaw, Matt Kemp, Zack Greinke and Hanley Ramirez, he shouldn't have had to assume that role at the age of 22.
As Vin Scully famously said about Puig in July, "The Wild Horse has led the team to the barn."
On Friday night in St. Louis, the race ended for the Wild Horse and the team that rode him to October.
Within time, if his game matures, along with his approach at the plate and defensive prowess, he'll be ready to overcome the pressure of October and lead the Dodgers to a World Series.
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