Yasiel Puig Must Transform from Enigma to Star for Dodgers to Win in October

Scott Miller@@ScottMillerBblNational MLB ColumnistOctober 6, 2014

Jayne Kamin-Oncea/USA Today

Whoosh, swish, whoooosh, whiff...what?

Yasiel Puig is in a fix. Again.

He earned the golden sombrero as the Los Angeles Dodgers barely escaped with a Game 2 win over the St. Louis Cardinals to even the National League Division Series at a game apiece. Overall, he's working on five strikeouts in a row—and counting—heading into Game 3 on Monday night.

Puig has swung and swung and swung, 16 times over his past five at-bats, without putting the ball in play.

Weird part? He had two hits and a walk and was hit by a pitch in four of the five plate appearances immediately preceding the five whiffs. It looked like he was chasing away the Ghosts of Cardinals Past. Then, this.

Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press

Simply put, Puig must get going. Matt Kemp's re-emergence aside, the Dodgers cannot accomplish what they hope to accomplish this month if Puig pulls the same disappearing act he pulled in last year's National League Championship Series.

"It's my fault for getting myself out," Puig told Bleacher Report through an interpreter late Saturday night as the Dodgers packed for St. Louis. "I'm [swinging] at their pitches."

Coming into October, memories of the way the Cardinals wiped out Puig in last October's NLCS were vivid. He batted just .227 then, with 10 strikeouts in 23 plate appearances.

Memories of the way Puig disappeared at times this season also remained fresh. He hit .248 in June and .216 in August this summer. During one stretch from June 1 through late August, Puig had just two home runs and 19 RBI.

Then, he got five hits in three games in San Francisco in mid-September and finished strong.

"I think he's in a good spot," Dodgers hitting coach Mark McGwire said during a conversation before Game 1. "He's being much more patient. He's not trying so hard. He's more relaxed, which allows his hands to work.

"I expect good things from him."

McGwire looked prophetic when, not long after that conversation, Puig ripped a first-inning single against Adam Wainwright in Game 1, scored after being hit by the pitch that emptied the benches in the third inning, cracked another single in the fourth and wound up with three runs scored.

But things change with the enigmatic Puig more quickly than fashion trends in high school. And getting hit by Wainwright may have unloosed the emotions he had fenced in.

"He always gets himself out," says one longtime talent evaluator who is following this Dodgers-Cardinals series for another club in the playoffs. "All you have to do with Puig is go up and in on him, put it in his head that he may get hit, and then he's very vulnerable down and away."

LOS ANGELES, CA - OCTOBER 04:  Yasiel Puig #66 of the Los Angeles Dodgers reacts after he was struck out in the third inning against the St. Louis Cardinals in Game Two of the National League Division Series at Dodger Stadium on October 4, 2014 in Los Ang
Harry How/Getty Images

Indeed, in the first inning of Game 2, Puig jawed with St. Louis catcher Yadier Molina as he left the plate after he thought Lance Lynn had fired a high fastball a little too close to his control tower.

"It wasn't even close," the evaluator said. "It was middle high. Not even close to him.

"He's a child. He's very lucky he's playing nowadays. Because guys like Stan Williams or Bruce Kison or Don Drysdale would kill him. Whenever anybody comes inside on him, he takes it as a personal affront."

The Dodgers are quick to point out, correctly, that what everyone must remember is that Puig is completing his first full year in the majors. He is still growing emotionally, if not physically. They believe the savvy Cardinals got him out of his game last October. In the couple of days leading up to this series, McGwire spoke to him about it.

"It was all about him being impatient," McGwire said. "[The Cardinals] knew it.

"When you don't have to throw somebody a strike, and he gets himself out...there were many at-bats last year where he could have walked, and he didn't."

Same thing this year when Puig dropped into the deep hole mid-summer.

"Total impatience," McGwire said. "Swinging at pitcher's pitches.

"Everyone catches on pretty quickly around here if you're swinging at pitcher's pitches.

"The reason he was hitting .340 over the first two months [.340 on June 2] is he probably was our most patient hitter."

Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press

So as this emotional series swings to Game 3, a question from Game 1 lingers: By drilling him in the shoulder, did the Cardinals get back into the emotional Puig's head?

In the moment, he took it remarkably well. He never even gave Wainwright a dirty look; he just trotted down to first base. It was the next batter, Adrian Gonzalez, who stirred things up by barking at Molina, "We're not going to start this again."

Gonzalez has worked overtime over these past two seasons to try to help Puig, school him, nurture him, teach him and, yes, scold him the many times when he's crossed lines. As for the Game 1 screaming match with Molina, though, Gonzalez said it wasn't because he feels overly protective of Puig.

"It's not just Yasiel," Gonzalez told Bleacher Report during a dugout conversation before Game 2. "It's protecting my teammates. It's protecting the fact that we're out here to play baseball. It was just 'Let's play.'"

Still, it is Puig who, as he has a knack for doing, again stands in the eye of the emotional hurricane.

Nobody is more high-maintenance on this Dodgers club. He played part of Game 1 wearing some neon spikes and then suddenly changed mid-game.

"He changed shoes during the game because...they were rubbing on his ankle somewhere," Dodgers manager Don Mattingly said.

Nobody, not even Kemp, is more Hollywood. When MLB wanted a publicity push going into the playoffs, it was Puig who was asked to appear on Jimmy Kimmel Live! early last week. He filmed a bit that took less than five minutes, posed for pictures with the staff for Twitter and was in and out in less than 40 minutes.

"He had a great time," Yvonne Carrasco, the Dodgers' assistant director of public relations who accompanied Puig, said. "It was a new experience. I don't think he had been to a show of that magnitude."

They're all still new experiences for Puig.

Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press

Question is, at what point will he be able to take a deep breath and slow things down? The strikeout to end Game 1, the first of the five consecutive, came with the tying run on third base and could have helped dig Clayton Kershaw out of that ugly 10-9 loss.

"I truly believe the only thing that will stop us is if we're impatient," McGwire said. "I think if we are patient, our offense can carry us all the way until we're holding up the trophy."

Not much for introspection, Puig said that what he learned from his experience last October is "just to play as a team. Do everything we can do on the field to get a win."

And if, as he admitted late Saturday, he is getting himself out on pitcher's pitches...well then, how can he change that for Game 3?

"Play the game on Monday," he said.

So they will. And when Puig steps into the Busch Stadium batter's box in the top of the first inning...he will have every chance to strike out for a sixth consecutive time in this series.

He will also have every chance to regroup by then, refrain from chasing the down-and-away stuff and put a jolt into a series that, already, is crackling with electricity.

Scott Miller covers Major League Baseball as a national columnist for Bleacher Report. He has over two decades of experience covering MLB, including 14 years as a national baseball columnist at CBSSports.com.

Follow Scott on Twitter and talk baseball @ScottMillerBbl.


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