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It's an ace of starts

It's Yasiel Puig who provides the energy that propels Dodgers to victory

October 04, 2013|BILL PLASCHKE
  • Dodgers right fielder Yasiel Puig is congratulated by his teammates after scoring in the second inning of the Dodgers' 6-1 win over the Atlanta Braves in Game 1 of the National League division series Thursday.
Dodgers right fielder Yasiel Puig is congratulated by his teammates after… (Wally Skalij / Los Angeles…)

ATLANTA — October, we'd like you to meet Yasiel Puig.

Now duck.

The Dodgers rookie stormed into his first postseason Thursday night at Turner Field with the wild swings, crazy sprints, bold throws, and a smiling swagger. The Atlanta Braves tried to harness him, then challenge him, then, finally, they shrugged their weary shoulders and hit him.

By the time the game was two innings old, he already had intimidated the Braves pitcher, bewitched their center fielder, enraged their fans and put a crooked number on their scoreboard.

By the time it ended, the enigmatic, enchanting 22-year-old kid had laughed in the face of baseball's most pressurized month, waltzed around the team with baseball's best home record, and inspired the Dodgers to a 6-1 victory in the opener of the National League division series.

After which, he put his cap on backward, blew kisses to the crowd, and threw an uppercut to his critics.

"I'm always giving my best, making the best decisions I can," Puig said with a grin through an interpreter. "If they want to keep criticizing, they can keep criticizing."

As usual, after dressing in T-shirt and jeans, he was one of the last players to leave the Dodgers' clubhouse, walking out this night with the last laugh.

Few could argue that throughout the summer, Puig has cost the Dodgers runs, and even games, with baserunning blunders and fielding bravado. Most would agree that he has been difficult to teach and often unwilling to change.

But after he silenced the whiny chants of more than 40,000 fans waving foam tomahawks Thursday night while allowing a rusty Clayton Kershaw to find himself and allowing his teammates to catch their first playoff breaths, it was clear there are times when his good can spectacularly overshadow the bad.

"A lot has been said about his craziness, I get it," said the Dodgers' Skip Schumaker. "I'll take that because of all the other good stuff that outweighs the craziness. Does he make mistakes? Of course. But why would you take that aggressiveness away from him? I love it."

Puig entered the game with a .214 September average amid worries that the frantic style of play that helped carry the Dodgers since the middle of June had finally burned him out.

It took him all of four pitches to change that perception, as he casually knocked Kris Medlen's fourth offering up the middle with one out in the second inning for the game's first hit.

Medlen then promptly did what many opponents do when they are startled by Puig's bat. He freaked out. He threw to first base four times while facing ensuing batter Juan Uribe in hopes of slowing Puig down. In doing so, he lost focus on Uribe and hung a pitch that was knocked into center field, and the sprinting Puig ended up on third base without even a throw from Jason Heyward.

''I'm thinking I've got to get to third base and [Heyward] did his job," Puig said. "He didn't want to risk making an error"

The madness was just beginning. Schumaker lofted a fly ball to shallow center field that Heyward caught with what should have been a reasonable chance of throwing out Puig at home plate. But this was Puig. And Heyward had no chance. Yet he futilely threw home anyway and, in doing so, allowed Uribe to sneak to second base, from where he scored on A.J. Ellis' bloop double to left field out of the outstretched glove of lunging Evan Gattis.

At that point, it was essentially Puig 2, Braves 0, and moments later it only got worse.

In the bottom of the second inning, the Braves thought they were mounting a comeback with a bloop single to right against Kershaw. But when Brian McCann then flied out to right field, Gattis was so caught up in watching Puig make the catch that he wandered far off the base, and was easily thrown out at first by Puig to complete a double play.

By the fifth inning, with the Braves trailing 5-1, it was clear that Puig had completely gotten into their heads after adding another single in the third inning. For Medlen's final pitch of the game, he hit Puig in the back, and fans actually stood and cheered. Then when Puig struck out to end the sixth inning -- one of his two strikeouts in his final two at-bats -- there was a huge ovation accompanied by fireworks.

Soon thereafter, a stadium that was not even full during the game quickly emptied out while Puig remained, nearly crushing fellow outfielders Schumaker and Carl Crawford during their traditional victory chest bump.

Throughout the game, the descriptions of Puig were as diverse as his talents.

When interviewed on television in the dugout, Dodgers Manager Don Mattingly said of Puig, "That cat is some kind of fast."

When talking on the radio -- only for innings 1-2-3 and 7-8-9 -- Vin Scully once again referred to Puig as "the wild horse."

Before the game, Dodgers co-owner Magic Johnson had another name for him. He actually said he was like another Magic.

"We came in the same way, fun-loving, all over the place," Johnson said.

"He brought that same enthusiasm to the Dodgers. It's been great to have him and be acting like a kid."

On Thursday night, he brought out the kid in all the Dodgers as they began what could be a quick and systematic dismantling of this seemingly overwhelmed Braves team, Puig by Puig.


Twitter: @billplaschke

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