The mercurial right fielder who couldn’t be trusted to be on time for a hitters’ meeting last season, let alone provide a much-needed boost to the offense, bashed two two-run home runs.
The veteran right-hander who could barely throw a strike last summer carved up an opponent with the precision of a pitching machine for much of the game.
There were two extremely encouraging developments for the Dodgers in their 10-2 victory over the San Diego Padres on Wednesday: Yasiel Puig flashing the kind of power that made him a rookie sensation in 2013 and pitcher Brandon McCarthy showing the crispness and command that could shore up the back of the rotation.
Puig, whom the Dodgers tried to trade before demoting him to triple-A last August, walloped an 85-mph Jered Weaver fastball an estimated 415 feet, well over the left-field wall, in the second inning. He sent a 78-mph Weaver slider screaming over the wall in left in the fourth.
Puig’s third homer in two games and first multiple-homer game since June 4, 2013 — that came in his second big league game, also against the Padres — helped the Dodgers win three of four in the season-opening series against rebuilding San Diego. Puig walked twice in his last three plate appearances.
“When he’s swinging at strikes and taking balls, when he’s focused like that, he’s a very dangerous hitter,” Dodgers manager Dave Roberts said. “He’s being very disciplined with his approach. They’re pitching him tough, but he’s swinging at strikes and taking balls. We’re looking for him to sustain it.”
Puig, 26, batted .319 with 19 homers and 42 runs batted in over 104 games in 2013 and finished second in National League rookie-of-the-year voting. He had a solid sophomore season, batting .296 with 16 homers and 69 RBIs in 2014.
Then hamstring injuries, immaturity, a waning work ethic and opposing pitchers who exposed the holes in his swing conspired against Puig in 2015-2016, when he combined to hit .260 with 22 homers and 83 RBIs in 183 games.
Puig’s demotion last summer humbled him. He returned in September with a commitment to be a better player, a better teammate. He carried that approach into this season.
“You have to behave yourself, you have to get here early, you have to prepare,” Puig, speaking through an interpreter, said when asked what he learned from his demotion. “That’s how things are gonna go the right way.”
Puig might not be a changed man, but he has matured.
“From what I’ve seen in years’ past to now, he’s really grown up,” Roberts said. “We’re asking him to continue to try to grow as a baseball player and a man. He’s really come a long way, and it’s a credit to him.”
Puig’s homers gave the Dodgers an four-run lead through four innings. After a two-run home run by Wil Myers in the top of the sixth cut the lead in half, they scored two runs in the bottom of the inning on a pinch-hit, RBI double by Enrique Hernandez, who later scored on a double steal. The Dodgers blew the game open during a four-run seventh that featured five walks and Corey Seager’s bloop, two-run double.
“Puig hitting like that, waffling balls all over, stealing bases … that’s the Puig that we need and the Puig everyone hated facing years ago,” McCarthy said. “I love watching it now.”
The Dodgers would love more performances like Thursday’s from McCarthy, who gave up two runs and four hits in six innings, striking out four and walking one. McCarthy’s fastball hit 95 mph in the sixth, and he mixed that pitch with a sharp curve and cut fastball. Of his 78 pitches, 52 were strikes.
Even the homer he gave up to Myers came on a decent pitch, a down-and-away curve that Myers drove to right-center.
“It’s a credit to his confidence,” Roberts said. “When he’s pounding the strike zone with different pitches, working hitters front to back, the pace of play is good, the defense is involved, he’s getting early swings and contact. He was very efficient up until that last inning.”
It was a far cry from McCarthy’s three August starts last season, when he walked 15 and hit two batters in 8 1/3 innings before going on the disabled list.
“It’s nice to go out and not have things go haywire and have some mess on your hands,” McCarthy said. “This set the tone for how I’d like to be moving forward.”