Inside the Dodgers dugout, Dave Roberts could not hide his displeasure. Yasiel Puig had just hit towering drive in the sixth inning of an 8-2 victory over Cincinnati. Roberts should have been celebrating a rare quality at-bat from his slump-ridden right fielder. Instead he felt compelled to exercise discipline.
Puig miscalculated his own strength by posing as the ball took flight. The ball did not clear the fence – it merely collided with the obstruction. So when Puig settled for a single, rather than the extra bases his hit merited, Roberts made up his mind. Puig would sit for his lackluster effort.
“We talk about playing the game the right way,” Roberts said. “We’ve got to be accountable.”
In that moment, Roberts entered the shoes of former Dodgers Manager Don Mattingly, who often sparred with Puig during the previous three seasons. Puig did not supply resistance to the decision. He did offer some remorse after the game.
“It was a bad decision on my part,” Puig said through a translator. “It was a good decision on the manager’s part. It shows not only myself, but the rest of my teammates, that you have to run out every single ball.”
Added Puig, “I wanted to keep playing. But his decision was the correct one, because I wasn’t giving 100 percent.”
The incident occurred during an otherwise non-descript thrashing of the Reds. Justin Turner drove in three runs. Trayce Thompson scored two. Joc Pederson drove in a run and scored another. Puig did the same, but there was little discussion of his performance after the game.
Making his second start of the season, Mike Bolsinger limited Cincinnati to three hits and two runs in 5 2/3 innings. He struck out six. Roberts has not committed to giving Bolsinger another turn in the rotation, but indicated after the game “he did a lot to give himself that opportunity.”
Yet, as it has so often since his arrival in 2013, the spotlight focused on Puig. He has performed well below expectations this season, hitting a career-low .247 with negligible discipline. His talent as a fielder is unquestioned, and on multiple occasions during these past two months, Roberts has praised Puig’s focus and ability as a defender.
But his effort and attention to detail have now become an issue in two out of the last three games. In Sunday in San Diego, Puig cost the team a chance to score the go-ahead run in the ninth inning when he failed to advance on a bunt in front of him.
“I got confused,” Puig said after the game.
“A brainfart,” Roberts called it a day later, and he offered forgiveness. He insisted on Tuesday night that the decision to yank Puig from the game after the off-the-wall single was not related to Sunday’s mistake.
“This was an isolated incident,” Roberts said.
Puig crackled with life before the game. His voice carried through a quiet clubhouse. He howled at Kenley Jansen as the closer completed a television interview. He called out good wishes to Hyun-Jin Ryu as the pitcher departed for another rehabilitation start.
“Goodbye Ryu!” Puig shouted across the room. “Pitch good.”
The energy appeared to ebb as the game approached. Midway through batting practice, as the rest of the team stood on the field, Roberts descended into the clubhouse. He re-emerged with his arm around Puig.
“You’ve got to shag,” Roberts said as they walked through the dugout. “You’ve got to be out here. Come on, papi.”
Roberts gave Puig a pat on the backside and went back to managing the other 24 men on his roster. Puig settled into a spot near third base, fielding groundballs with Jansen. He went hitless in his first two at-bats before the sixth.
With runners at the corners and one out, Puig hammered a slider from Reds reliever Dayan Diaz. . Puig admired its flight.
“I thought it was a home run, and I didn’t run out the ball obviously,” Puig said. “It was his decision to take me out of the game. It was a decision that I understand. It was a decision well-made, because my teammates are out on the field working hard, on the field. I should have run out that ball.”
But he did not, and in the dugout, Roberts fumed. Puig showed moxie in scoring his team’s fifth run a few batters later. He sprinted home from second after an error in the field by Reds first baseman Joey Votto.
The dichotomy in effort could not have been lost on Dodgers officials. Roberts told Puig he was done. Puig accepted the decision.
During the winter, Roberts sought to establish trust with Puig. He wanted Puig to feel comfortable within the clubhouse, appreciated by his teammates, supported by his coaches. Puig has not responded with production. On Tuesday, for the first time in Roberts’ tenure, he saw Puig’s effort wane to an unacceptable degree.
“I think Yasiel feels bad about it,” Roberts said. “It’s a continued learning process for everyone.”