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Joc Pederson just might be what the Dodgers need for final push

BaseballYasiel PuigLos Angeles DodgersDon MattinglyDoug FisterSpecial OlympicsAlbuquerque Isotopes
Joc Pederson, the Dodgers' top minor league prospect, could play a huge role for team in September
Joc Pederson gets his first major league start, playing in center field for the struggling Yasiel Puig

The Dodgers' future swaggered into the starting lineup at Chavez Ravine on Tuesday night, just in time to push aside ... the Dodgers' future?

Joc Pederson was in, Yasiel Puig was out. And if you think you're confused, how about poor Queen Latifah, who showed up behind the batting cage before the game wearing a Puig jersey and posing for photos with her hero, just in time to watch him spend the next two hours and 40 minutes on the bench.

Welcome to the pennant race, Hollywood style.

With the cuddly little San Francisco Giants' garlic-fry breath suddenly on the Dodgers' necks — only two games separate them with 23 remaining — Don Mattingly decided it's time to start pulling out all the stops.

That meant pulling out the struggling Puig and putting the shiny Pederson in center field for his first major league start, which made for some pregame fun before the Dodgers' 4-1 victory over the Washington Nationals.

While Pederson, 22, swaggered to the batting practice like he owned the joint, Puig raced to the stadium like he had once again gotten lost.

According to one bystander, Puig was seen racing his Rolls-Royce through the mostly empty Dodger Stadium parking lot 10 minutes before the position players were supposed to take the field for stretching. He showed up in the Dodgers' clubhouse five minutes before the deadline, and rushed out to the diamond.

Mattingly said he was benching Puig to allow him to fight out of his slump with some extra work. One can only wonder about the difficulty of obtaining such extra work when showing up late.

“It's kind of like a kid that's sinking a little bit swimming, and you leave him in the water and he learns how to swim and maybe he drowns,” said Mattingly of Puig. “Or you pull him out and help him a little bit and then give him a chance to get back in the water.”

Puig indeed has been thrashing about, with just two homers since May 28, batting just .216 in August with four runs batted in, and seems to be losing energy and focus like he did last season, which ended in embarrassment in right field in St. Louis.

Pederson, meanwhile, has been riding a wave of confidence instilled by an organization that refused to deal him at the trading deadline even for the sort of strong arm that they could be missing in October. Pederson arrived here from triple-A Albuquerque on Monday after spending a season there hitting 33 homers with 30 stolen bases and a .435 on-base percentage.

“I was told just be ready to play, I'm just going to show up,” said Pederson late Tuesday night. “It's a good feeling. We got a good win. It's all about winning now.”

No, no, Pederson isn't going to take Puig's place in the starting lineup. A more likely scenario would be Pederson moving Puig back to right field and Matt Kemp over to left field. But Mattingly is already calling Pederson the club's best-fielding outfielder, and during the next month he could provide the kind of youthful energy and sense of competition that has been missing around the clubhouse this season. The Dodgers are hoping he will push his older teammates into a greater sense of urgency, if

not become a viable playoff piece himself.

“We all like the way Joc kind of carries himself,” said Mattingly. “We've seen him since he was really young and you could tell right away he had that little swagger and that confidence that he was a player. ... He carries himself with an air.”

That air was evident during the game, when Pederson reached base twice in four times with two patient and smart plate appearances. He swings so effortlessly that even when he strikes out, he looks good doing it.

In the second inning, Pederson fisted Doug Fister's fifth pitch into center field for a single. In the fourth inning, he worked Fister for six pitches before striking out on a looping 78-mph changeup. In the sixth inning, he drew a five-pitch walk. In the eighth, against reliever Xavier Cedeno, he grounded out on the first pitch.

“He looked good,” said Mattingly. “I watch his at-bats, he reminds me of Cargo [Carlos Gonzalez], I watched that same swing, that [George] Brett look ... he's got that rhythm to it ... almost like you're hitting a bullwhip instead of a bat.”

He's a great story, a mass of youthful contradictions, signing four years ago as an 11th-round pick out of Palo Alto High, seemingly both gifted and grounded.

Joc is his real first name. It's not a nickname. He has brothers named Tyger and Champ. Those are also not nicknames.

He has the partial dark mohawk haircut of a rebellious teen, but it flops over the bright face of a kid. When he stepped up for his first place appearance in the second inning, the speakers bared his chosen song, the bold “Man of the Year” by Schoolboy Q. Yet his story is filled with moments of great humility. His older brother Champ has Down syndrome, and he was proud to coach his basketball team in the Special Olympics. And the last thing he did before leaving triple-A Albuquerque last weekend was to allow the Isotopes to raffle off his 1994 Buick with 166,000 miles and one operable window, two air fresheners included.

“I'm excited, it's a dream come true,” said Pederson upon his arrival here as the next big thing, a new kind of energy, a different type of air freshener.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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BaseballYasiel PuigLos Angeles DodgersDon MattinglyDoug FisterSpecial OlympicsAlbuquerque Isotopes
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