The Yasiel Puig Era for the Dodgers Begins with a Bang
The beleaguered Brandon League was on the mound in the ninth inning to pitch to the 4-5-6 hitters of the San Diego Padres and close a 2-1 ballgame. He entered the game with a 5.31 ERA, a rather bloated ERA for a closer.
After getting Jeff Gyorko to ground out League walked Chris Denorfia on five pitches, the remainder of the 37,055 natives getting more and more restless with each missed pitch.
Then with Kyle Blanks at the plate, League missed the first pitch. He threw to first to keep Denorfia true. League missed his second pitch, and the fans were voicing their displeasure. League threw to first base.
Then League threw a pitch just above where he threw the first two. Blanks got a good crack at the ball as Denorfia was running sending right fielder Yasiel Puig to the wall.
Unlike League, Puig's presence was most welcome. Since spring training when Puig batted a gaudy .517 in 58 at-bats, all fans could ask about was when Puig would get here. I even received a tweet last night asking why Puig wasn't in goal for Jonathan Quick in last night's 4-2 Kings loss to the Chicago Blackhawks.
"Happy Puig Day," greeted A.J. Ellis.
Things did seem happy in the clubhouse despite losing four of their last five games. DJ Juan Uribe turned the music on and practice his moves for his Dancing with the Stars audition tape. Ryu Hyun-Jin told us reporters that he's ready to make his next start whenever manager Don Mattingly tells him to.
But all of this covers up the stark reality the Dodgers face. The Dodgers are 23-32, a season-high nine games under .500 and 8 1/2 games behind the division-leading Arizona Diamondbacks. Two-thirds of their outfield, Carl Crawford and Matt Kemp, are on the disabled list as are their starting catcher, shortstop and assorted pitchers. Chris Capuano who was supposed to be the starting pitcher was scratched because of a triceps injury.
"It's been a pretty eventful three to four days here," Mattingly said.
This 22-year-old Cuban is the mythical figure in his first full season of professional baseball here in the States. In Double-A Chattanooga of the Southern League, Puig has been batting .313 with eight homers, 15 walks and an on-base-plus-slugging percentage of .982.
It's easy to lose control and give way to Puig-mania or whatever cute slogan you want to issue for whatever this is.
"I know I can come up here and help the team win," Puig said through an interpreter.
While you like that confidence oozing from the pores of your players, Mattingly was a bit more muted during his pregame comments.
"We'll see what happens," Mattingly repeated several times.
Mattingly didn't have any concerns about the maturity issues that plagued Puig in Chattanooga. "We had no issues with the way he went about his business in spring training," Mattingly said.
But it's clear that Mattingly wanted to keep Puig in Double-A longer. "We've had a lot of injuries, so you really do things sometimes before you want to do them."
The one area of concern with Puig is that by calling him up so soon it could stunt his development, the one thing Mattingly has openly regretted with Dee Gordon. Was there any apprehension in the same thing happening with Puig?
"It's always there with a young guy," Mattingly replied. "He's pretty confident. That's what you worry about as much as anything else. If he gets up and tears it up, it's not going to hurt him at all. It only hurts him if he really struggles, then you have to go the other direction and figure it out."
Mattingly decided to throw Puig into the fire having him bat leadoff. As if wanting to mute all of the expectations himself, Puig did not channel Jose Offerman who homered as a leadoff hitter in his first at-bat in his first game for the Dodgers on Aug. 19, 1990. Puig just hit a flyball single into centerfield.
Puig's other hit was a sharply hit grounder in the sixth inning that ate up Padres first baseman Kyle Blanks.
By then the only Dodgers runs were scored when Adrian Gonzalez and Scott Van Slyke hit solo homers off of Padres starter Eric Stults in the first and second innings respectively.
It wasn't those two hits, it wasn't the blazing speed he displayed despite grounding out to third base in the third inning. Puig saved his best for last.
There Blanks' ball was traveling further and further to right field. Puig kept backing up to the wall as Blanks' ball traveled further and further out. Puig tracked it down and made a laser throw to Gonzalez at first base just as Denorfia slid to try and not get doubled up.
Home plate umpire Mark Wegner was there and emphatically called Denorfia out. It was just your standard 9-3 double play that even had Vin Scully marvelling.
"I'm thinking that ball is going out of the ballpark the way things have been going on," Mattingly admitted. "That throw was unbelievable."
"Incredible," Luis Cruz added.
"Thank God I could end the game like that," Puig said.
In its first day, the Puig experiment has worked nicely. "It's hard for you not to feel the energy," Mattingly commented. "It's so powerful. The crowd got excited when he grounded out to third."
Will it work the second day? We'll see.
And not to be forgotten in all of this was that catch and throw preserved the win for Dodgers starter Stephen Fife who got his first big league win in seven tries that dates back to last season. "Pretty cool," Fife said. "Seven times, finally got one."