What has gotten into Yasiel Puig? Whatever it is, the Dodgers hope it won’t find a way out.
Puig, the 26-year-old slugger/igniter, has come a long way since two years ago, when early in the offseason Clayton Kershaw may or may not have asked to have the Dodgers’ problem right fielder ushered out. Most assumed he had when Andy Van Slyke, whose son Scott was a Dodger, said “the highest player on the team” was suggesting to the front office that Puig be traded.
Puig wasn’t dealt, but he was sent to the Class AAA woodshed last season, and now the ‘‘Wild Horse” is doing smart, disciplined baseball things such as working counts and drawing walks.
He’s still a bundle of entertaining, frenetic energy, cranking up crowds, bantering with teammates, licking pine tar off his bat for good luck, flipping his bat after base hits, wagging his tongue for cameras and thumping his chest for show, but now Puig is being lauded by manager Dave Roberts for plate discipline and patience.
“It’s great when he can play with such emotion and focus, as well,” Roberts said. “He loves the big stage, and his only focus is helping us continue to win baseball games. Right now, he’s playing at a high level, and not only the fans, but his teammates are feeding off it.”
How’s this for a high level? With a three-game sweep of the Diamondbacks in the NLDS and a 3-0 lead on the Cubs in the NLCS after a 6-1 triumph Tuesday, the Dodgers will take a franchise record six-game postseason winning streak into Wednesday’s elimination game.
“The way we’ve been pitching, hitting in clutch situations and doing all the little things, obviously everybody is feeling pretty good,’’ said reliever Brandon Morrow, who contributed to the latest scoreless effort from a bullpen that hasn’t allowed a run in 12 2/3 innings in the series.
With the 3-0 series lead, Roberts wouldn’t allow himself to think World Series just yet.
“No,” he said. “Right now we’re just laser-focused on trying to win baseball games. Our focus is [Cubs Game 4 starter Jake] Arrieta and trying to figure out a way to win a baseball game tomorrow night.”
Their manner of winning over the D-backs and Cubs looks a lot how they did it in winning 43 of 50 games from June 7 to Aug. 5.
Puig has been an energizer through it all.
“I’m coming here and preparing more this year than any years here with the team,’’ Puig said. “My teammates, manager and coaches have helped me a lot, and that’s the reason I played better this year. I’m so proud of myself. I want to keep going and do the best I can for my teammates and for myself.’’
After batting seventh in Games 1 and 2, Puig was moved up to fourth against Kyle Hendricks. He put a first-inning scare into the Wrigley Field crowd by driving an 0-1 pitch high and deep but just wide of the left-field foul pole before getting called out on strikes. He would let Chris Taylor and Andre Ethier have the home run heroics but would single twice, the second one lined so hard off the left field bricks that left fielder Kyle Schwarber would throw him out at second on a close play.
Puig is 9-for-21, including a home run in the NLCS, and has reached base 14 times in the postseason. He has six RBI in six games. All of this coming after batting .263/.346/.487 with career highs in homers (28) and RBI (74) during the regular season.
Puig has come a long way, in a good way, since getting sent in August 2016 to Class AAA Oklahoma City to become a better “player and person,” Roberts said at the time. Puig was said to have been late for Dodgers meetings, and his work habits were questioned.
But now he’s doing all the right things, without compromising his high social-media profile. Check #Puigyourfriend for reference and amusement.
Asked after Game 1 if this is the most fun he has had playing baseball, Puig played to his media audience.
“No, when I was 5 years old, I played better,” he said.
Maybe so, Yasiel. But your game is looking pretty strong again right now. Yours and everyone else in Dodger blue.