Kobe, LeBron ... Yasiel? Dodgers’ Puig looks for Year 3 breakthrough
As Yasiel Puig looked around the Dodgers clubhouse in the days leading up to opening day, he noticed a change in how he felt.
“I’m very acclimated,” Puig said in Spanish.
The season opener against the San Diego Padres on Monday at Dodger Stadium will mark the start of Puig’s third season in the major leagues. The right fielder is 24 years old and almost three years removed from his daring escape from Cuba. He has learned enough English to be able to joke with the majority of his teammates and is hopeful that his increased comfort will translate into greater production.
Puig made his first All-Star team last season, but as breathtaking as his play was at times, his inconsistency made him an offensive liability at others. While management has refrained from burdening Puig with expectations, the reality is that he will be counted on to make up for the departures of Matt Kemp and Hanley Ramirez. Puig takes it as a positive sign that some teammates have started asking him for advice.
“That makes me proud,” Puig said. “That means that I’m getting better every year.”
Puig batted .296 with 16 home runs and 69 runs batted in last season. He scored 92 runs, hit 37 doubles and nine triples, and had a .382 on-base percentage. By some metrics, that was enough to make him the best offensive player on the team.
But he understands he will have to do more to fulfill his stated ambition of becoming baseball’s equivalent of Kobe Bryant or LeBron James.
He will start by doing something he didn’t do last season — get to Dodger Stadium in time to stretch with teammates on opening day.
Whether Puig bats second or third in the Dodgers lineup, he is expected to hit in front of Adrian Gonzalez, who led the major leagues with 116 runs batted in last season.
Asked about his responsibility to reach base in his newfound role, Puig smiled mischievously and said loudly enough for Gonzalez to hear, “If I don’t hit a home run, I’m not going to score because I don’t plan to run much this year.”
Gonzalez turned around and smiled. He pointed at Puig and told him half-jokingly in Spanish, “If you’re on base, you better score.”
Puig laughed, then reminded Gonzalez of a game in St. Louis two years ago. Gonzalez was on first base and failed to score on a double by Puig to right-center field.
Gonzalez countered by recalling an instance when Puig cost him an RBI.
“I’ll never forget that time I hit a grounder to right field and you stayed on third base,” Gonzalez said. “You didn’t move.”
“When?” Puig asked. “My first year?”
“Your first week,” Gonzalez said.
Puig remembered. The play in question occurred on Puig’s second day in the major leagues.
“The grounder to second?” Puig asked.
“It was a grounder to right field,” Gonzalez said. “The second baseman had shifted over.”
Puig and Gonzalez exploded laughing.
When the laughter subsided, Puig explained how the bilingual Gonzalez has helped his transition to American baseball. Puig went on to name other players who have influenced him positively. Whereas this list was made up almost exclusively of Spanish-speaking players in previous seasons, Puig now mentioned several players from other segments of the team.
“Jimmy Rollins, I’ve known him for two months,” he said. “He’s a tremendous person. He’s advised me a lot.”
He also talked about the examples set by players such as Clayton Kershaw and J.P. Howell.
“And this young man here,” he said, looking over at Howie Kendrick, who was seated nearby.
When his eyes met Kendrick’s, Puig shifted back into a joking mode.
“He hit me right here,” Puig said, pointing at his throat.
The reference was to how they collided Thursday in pursuit of a fly ball in an exhibition game against the Angels. Puig was knocked out of the contest.
Smiling, Puig turned to Kendrick and said to the second baseman in English, “Why are you going to right field? That’s my position.”
Shaking his head, Kendrick compared Puig to Peter McNeeley, a heavyweight boxer who was once knocked out by Mike Tyson in 89 seconds.
“I barely even touched you,” Kendrick said.
Puig laughed and warned him, “Next time, you’re going to the DL.”
Puig pantomimed a leisurely stride and told Kendrick, “You go in like that. When it’s me, everybody says, ‘The train is coming! The Puig is coming! The Puig is coming!’”
But Puig knows he can’t joke his way through a season. He’s been here before. He knows what to expect.
“Right now, I don’t have pressure,” he said. “What starts Monday is different. Different people will be in the stadium. Different stadium. More people in the stadium.”
He also knows how baseball can be unpredictable. So even though he’s optimistic about how the revamped roster came together in spring training, he knows that doesn’t guarantee the Dodgers anything.
“We’re very focused,” he said. “But I can’t say we’ll be better because we were very good last year. If we reach the playoffs and go further than we did last year, then we’ll be better. If we get to the same point we did last year, it means we’re the same.”
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