Dynamic Puig continuing growth on the field
Dodgers outfielder starting to make strides with plate and baserunning discipline
NEW YORK -- Mets third baseman David Wright lifted a fly ball to right field in the third inning Tuesday night. Yasiel Puig drifted to his left, made the catch then fired the ball to third to keep Eric Young from advancing to third.
The only problem was that catching Wright's fly was the final out of the inning.
He also went 3-for-4 with a double, two RBIs and scored twice. Both facts help explain why Puig is one of the must-see players in baseball. Add his intriguing back story of defecting from Cuba and his tendency to flip his bat after big hits, and what emerges is a star who is both charismatic and mysterious.
It hasn't even been a full year since he broke in on Jun 3, 2013. Visiting the Big Apple for just the second time, he was surrounded by reporters before Wednesday night's game at Citi Field. And he began to smile when the question about forgetting how many outs there were the night before began to be asked in English even before his interpreter translated it for him.
"It was [Juan] Uribe's fault," he said with a laugh. "Uribe is one of the guys who really helps me a lot. A couple weeks ago, I had a couple bad days where I did things on the bases or did something, you know, that weren't fundamentally sound. So Juan and I were talking about three or four days ago and he goes, 'Yasiel, maybe 10 days, he hasn't messed up anything defensively or running the bases or anything.'"
Uribe, he concluded, had jinxed him.
All kidding aside, Puig has gotten even better since finishing second in the National League Rookie of the Year voting last season. In 144 games entering Wednesday night he had a .953 OPS. And manager Don Mattingly talked at length before the series opener on Tuesday night about how dramatically he has improved his plate discipline.
"I've been trying to work on that," he said. "[Dodgers first baseman Adrian Gonzalez] is one of the guys who talks to me a lot about when you're facing pitchers up here with the stuff they have here at the Major League level, it's tough when you swing at balls out of the strike zone. So that's one of the things I've been trying to work on and obviously the success I've had the last month or so hitting strikes has showed up in the numbers.
"If you work hard, hopefully you'll have success. That's one thing I've done. I don't think I'm in awe of being in the Major Leagues now. I feel like I belong. I've done the things I need to do. When you face Major League pitching it's never easy. You have to make adjustments and that's what I'm trying to do to compete. I just love playing baseball."
Mets manager Terry Collins talked Wednesday night about the old baseball maxim of not letting the other team's star beat you. He used it as a way to explain why third baseman David Wright might not be getting many good pitches to hit. And when he was asked who the player in the Dodgers lineup was that he wouldn't want to let beat him, he had to think a minute. Then he said that, at least because he's so hot right now, it has to be Puig.
That's showing a lot of respect to a 23-year-old. But Puig's flashy style can also sometimes rub opponents the wrong way.
"It's my style. It's the way I've played baseball for a long time. I don't really worry about the other team or what other players think about me, other than our team," he said. "As far as what other people think, I try to play the game hard and I try to play the game happy. I want to have a good time when I'm playing. This is a game of entertainment. I don't play it to offend people. But I do have a good time playing the game of baseball."
Cuban hitters have had a real impact in Major League Baseball over the last couple years. Yoenis Cespedes with the Athletics a couple years ago. Puig last season. Jose Abreu with the White Sox this year.
"I'm happy they're doing well," Puig said. "What they've had to overcome to get here, plus now they're facing big-time pitching. Plus they're playing in stadiums where there are a lot of people, things they aren't accustomed to doing in Cuba. Now they're playing in big ballparks. All the attention is new, but they've adapted. It's the first time they've had all these microphones around. That doesn't happen in Cuba."
Puig is making the adjustment. He was thinking about going to the Empire State Building Wednesday night and planned to see the Statue of Liberty on Thursday. He showed off his personality at the MLB Fan Cave earlier in the week.
"The attention is there. I'm still not accustomed to it, but I know it's part of the job," he said with a shrug. "I know I have to do it. I try to respect everybody. I don't know if it's one of my favorite things, but it's my responsibility."
Paul Hagen is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.