The Dodgers play very good baseball. Wednesday, they also did some pretty nifty dance steps.
Call it the Yasiel Puig two-step.
On a day when Ricky Nolasco pitched his second straight gem, the Dodgers beat the Cubs, 4-0, Hanley Ramirez and Andre Ethier hit home runs, and 38,851 braved oppressive heat to watch and celebrate a team cruising toward the postseason, Puig was the story.
Sad it had to be that way. Sad that a 22-year-old Cuban defector with a $42-million contract and so much talent it defies description can turn a perfect Dodgers day into one with an asterisk.
He started the game in right field, batting leadoff. He walked in the first inning, struck out swinging in the third and was replaced in right field in the fifth by Manager Don Mattingly.
Yes, replaced in the fifth inning. No injury. A manager's decision. A star player, batting .347 coming in, who was two for five the day before and was 11 for 20 with two home runs against the Cubs this season, was suddenly on the bench.
Hard to argue that wasn't strange.
The press box buzzed. Those in the stadium paying attention had to wonder.
In the broadcast booth, Vin Scully, who has seen a few things in his 64 years with the Dodgers and is a master at helping viewers understand without shoving it down their throats, tells a story about Gil Hodges managing the New York Mets. Hodges saw something he didn't like about the way an outfielder was playing and took him out of the game by marching onto the field and escorting him back to the dugout.
Hint, hint, listeners.
Those fans who hadn't taken note of Puig's absence in the outfield couldn't miss it in the Dodgers' fifth. With men on first and third, the leadoff hitter was up; only it was Skip Schumaker, not the now-fabled No. 66. Schumaker singled between first and second to extend the Dodgers' lead to the final 4-0.
Was Mattingly that much of a genius, or just lucky?
The game ended, the media descended and the fancy footwork began. Nolasco, apparently missing one of the dance lessons, said of Puig, "What he did was unacceptable.…He's young. He's going to have to learn."
When asked what it was that Puig did that was unacceptable, Nolasco said he wasn't sure, but he would stand with "the skipper" in doing what he had to do.
After a longer-than-normal delay, the Skipper showed up and did a masterful fox trot. Mattingly said he put Schumaker into the game for Puig because "Skip gave us the best chance to win … today." He said the same thing about six more times.
As it turns out, what happened had little to do with Schumaker giving the Dodgers the best chance to win, no offense to Schumaker. It had everything to do with more of Puig's immaturity and attitude problems.
Puig struck out in the third and looked bad doing it. He tossed his bat angrily, then emerged slowly from the dugout to take his position in right field in the fourth. He went to his position slowly, in kind of a sulk, and then was observed by Mattingly and assistants as not being ready to play, even as Nolasco went into his pitching motion.
So he was yanked.
For some reason, the Dodgers decided to dance around what happened, rather than just laying out the facts.
What's the big deal? Puig has an attitude problem? Gee, as if fans and the media hadn't heard that before.
Mattingly prattled on through the news conference, saying things such as:
•"I see good in all my players."
•"I talked to him [Puig] like I talk to my kids."
•"I prefer keeping things in-house."
To be clear, Mattingly is not a reticent quote or an uncooperative guy. This was uncharacteristic, but then, so is much about Puig.
He is exuberant, unpredictable, becoming somewhat of an annoyance to some of his teammates, and generally, a mysterious guy. The fast cars, the occasional tardiness, the hotdogging slides into home plate in a walkoff win, even the body language during a game, can wear thin — as it apparently did Wednesday. So can the number of times the organization, including teammates, can use the "boys will be boys" rationalization with him.
"We were all young here once," Ethier told The Times' Dylan Hernandez on Wednesday. "You're going to make mistakes.…You're going to have to let it take its course and let him learn for himself."
The Dodgers' investment in Puig is huge. So must be their concern.
Puig danced along to the same team tune afterward, saying he was taken out because he "was not prepared properly for some pitches." He said that once the manager talked to him, he understood the decision.
In the end, it was a mini-crisis, and by their evasiveness, the Dodgers made it seem bigger and were unsuccessful in waltzing through it.
Some unsolicited advice to the Dodgers: Great days lie ahead. Playoffs, accolades, all well-deserved.
Play baseball, not nursemaid.