By TIM DAHLBERG
Without him the Los Angeles Dodgers are just another underachieving team in the National League West, while Don Mattingly finds ways to spend his unexpected summer vacation.
Yasiel Puig announced he was something special almost from the time he put on a Dodgers uniform for real in June and started hitting everything thrown his way. His exuberance matched his bat, giving the lethargic Dodgers a much needed jolt of energy and helping spark them on a record-breaking run that took the team from dead last in the NL West to the odds-on favorite to win the World Series.
But at times he plays as though he were still on the sand lots of Cuba, trying to impress his friends. The 22-year-old’s refusal to listen to both his manager and his teammates is a sign his level of immaturity nearly equals his level of talent.
That the Dodgers would not be where they are without him is a given. With him, though, they may be just one boneheaded play away from letting a magical season fizzle in the playoffs.
The conundrum that is Puig was on full display Tuesday night in Arizona, where the rookie who never saw a runner he couldn’t throw out was at it again. With runners on first and second and no one out in the first inning, Puig caught a fly ball from Paul Goldschmidt on the warning track in right field and launched a balloon throw that arrived far too late to get the runner advancing to third.
He came closer to hitting the guy selling beer in the stands than he did his cutoff man. The only reason the runner on first didn’t advance to second was he was too surprised the throw was even made.
Do that against the big-on-fundamentals St. Louis Cardinals — who the Dodgers would face in the first round if the playoffs started today — and the results might not be the same. Mistakes are magnified in a short series, and Puig’s penchant for making them both from the field and on the bases could conceivably cost the Dodgers a game or even the best-of-five series.
Matt Kemp may have been thinking of that when he gave Puig a lengthy lecture in right-center after the throw. If that didn’t get Puig’s attention, second baseman Mark Ellis might have when he stood with his hands over his head for several seconds after the throw, then looked out at Puig and pointed to second base.
They’ve tried to get the kid to listen for months now, to no avail. So has Mattingly, who benched Puig briefly a few weeks ago after he failed to slide into second to attempt to break up a double play and seemed lackadaisical in the outfield.
This is the regular season, where a game here or there doesn’t mean much, especially for a team with a huge lead in the division. Soon the playoffs will start, though, and the margin for error will become much slimmer.
Luckily, the Dodgers got Kemp back at just the right time, so they have some options. The outfielder who would have won the 2011 MVP if Ryan Braun hadn’t juiced, went 4 for 4 in his first game back Tuesday after missing most of the summer with a string of injuries.
Assuming Kemp can stay healthy — and that’s a big assumption — the Dodgers have the player they want in center field. And if Andre Ethier — who had the right field job before Puig arrived — and left fielder Carl Crawford both recover from nagging injuries, the Dodgers have a solid outfield even without Puig.
What they wouldn’t have is the all-out intensity Puig brings to the team most times he is on the field. That, more than his hitting, is what sparked the Dodgers in June when they trailed in the NL West by 9 1/2 games and every game Mattingly managed could have been his last.
“The guy feels like he’s the best player on the field and those are the guys I want to play with,” recent Dodgers addition Michael Young said in a radio interview this week.
Young isn’t alone in his admiration for Puig. His teammates like the Cuban sensation, too, but they’ve grown increasingly frustrated with his base running, fielding, and inability to take direction.
It’s a balancing act for Mattingly, who has to be concerned with Puig’s declining numbers as well as his decision-making skills. Puig, bothered by a sore hip and other assorted ailments, has hit only .224 for September with two home runs, far off his record month in June, when he had 44 hits, second in rookie debuts only to Joe DiMaggio’s 48 in 1936. Most worrisome for the Dodgers is that he can’t seem to lay off the outside slider teams are getting him out with.
Puig did things no rookie has a right to do this year, helping take a team from last place to first in a remarkable 42-8 streak. He’ll be the rookie of the year, and he should be a fixture for many years in right field at Chavez Ravine.
But unless he figures out how to listen, Puig could get the Dodgers knocked out of the playoffs as easily as he could get them into the World Series.