On the afternoon of June 3, in the hours before Yasiel Puig‘s first major-league game, the rambunctious rookie was doing something rarely seen: He stood and listened.
Dodger Stadium was quiet. There couldn’t have been more than 10 people on the field. Class was in session.
Davey Lopes was a few feet from first base on the infield dirt, crouched and staring at the pitcher’s mound, leading off like he had many times in this ballpark. Their conversation was out of earshot for those of us up in the press box, but we didn’t need an imagination or an interpreter to figure out what was going on. Puig was getting a crash course from Lopes, the Dodgers’ first base coach, on how to read a major-league pitcher.
In his 66 games since then, number 66 has been picked off once and caught stealing six times. That’s not good, but it’s also not awful for a player as aggressive as Puig. If anything, it’s to be expected.
But the consequences of Puig’s mistakes are being magnified, largely for two reasons: One, he’s batting second for a team that’s the hottest in baseball and the new World Series favorite. Two, he so rarely looks like a rookie. Rookies don’t generally do what Puig is doing with the Dodgers, with a few exceptions. Baserunning is one of those exceptions. It stands out.
Hamels is a pickoff artist. A few left-handed starters have it down to an art form, and Hamels is among them. He’s tied for second in the National League in what Stats LLC calls “PCS,” that is, pickoffs plus pickoffs that resulted in a caught stealing. The sixth-inning play wasn’t recorded as a pickoff but rather as a caught stealing.
Regardless, it wasn’t the worst of Puig’s mistakes Sunday. The other exception to Puig’s excellence is how often he misses the cutoff man on throws to the infield.
Lost to history is how the sixth inning would have played out if Puig had hit his cutoff man. When Domonic Brown singled to right field, and Chase Utley successfully attempted to go from first base to third, Puig tossed the ball on a laser’s path to third. Third baseman Nick Punto went airborne to make the catch and Utley slid in safe, while Brown rounded first base and took second. With first base open, Ricky Nolasco pitched around Darin Ruf, walking him on five pitches to load the bases. Cody Asche‘s ground ball to second base was just slow enough to score Utley from third when Asche beat out the double-play relay from Hanley Ramirez. That tied the game at 2.
If Puig hits his cutoff man, maybe the Dodgers pitch Ruf differently with runners on first and third. Maybe Ruf grounds into a double play to end the inning and the Dodgers escape with a 2-1 lead. Maybe Ruf or Asche drives the run in anyway. Who knows.
In the grand scheme of things, that one play won’t change the fate of the Dodgers’ season, but it will serve as another point on the measuring stick of Puig’s maturity.
Not to be overlooked, Puig is now making over-the-shoulder basket catches. Willie Mays made those sometimes, and he’s in the Hall of Fame. Puig might have made them all the time in Cuba and to our knowledge he hasn’t missed one yet. But because he’s a rookie, manning right field for a World Series favorite, it stands out — and not in a good way.
“But you take the good with the bad” is exactly what Don Mattingly told reporters this morning in Philadelphia. It’s what he’ll tell us as long as Puig is batting .360, cutting off balls to the gap and holding the go-ahead run on third base in the ninth inning — as he did today — and continuing to learn, however slowly it may seem for a team that is rolling faster than any team in the last 71 years.
A few bullet points:
• The box score is here.
• Their 10-game winning streak over, the Dodgers are now 15-2 in August, 25-4 since the All-Star break and 42-9 in their last 51 games.
• Hanley Ramirez made two errors in the ninth inning. One was a difficult play, the kind that results in an out if Adrian Gonzalez is at first base, scooping a short-hop throw out of the dirt as he often does. The other was not. “Yeah, if we make plays in the ninth, the game’s still going,” Mattingly told reporters after the game, “but we had nine innings … after the fourth or fifth there, we couldn’t score again.”
• Tough loss for Brandon League, who was charged with a walk (intentional), allowed a solid hit to a good hitter (Carlos Ruiz) and induced a pair of ground balls that resulted in Ramirez errors. It’s hard to lose a game without seeing your ERA change, but League found a way to do it.
• Ruf’s fourth-inning home run ended the Dodgers’ scoreless streak at 30 innings, the eighth-longest scoreless streak in team history. The last time the Dodgers allowed a run before today, Chris Capuano was on the mound, the Dodgers were playing the New York Mets, and Charlie Manuel was still managing the Phillies.
• This was Ryne Sandberg’s first win as a major-league manager.