When Yasiel Puig returned to the Dodgers’ dugout after slugging a three-run home run against the St. Louis Cardinals in the fifth inning Saturday, hitting coach Turner Ward welcomed him with a surprise. As he usually does after clubbing a home run, Puig had kissed Ward on the cheek after hitting a solo shot an inning earlier in the Dodgers’ 17-4 shellacking. This time, Ward planted the smooch.
Three innings later, after Puig drilled his second three-run homer of the afternoon, Puig approached Ward with a proposition.
“‘You know what, it’s 1-1,’” Puig recalled telling Ward. “‘I kissed you the first time. You kissed me the second one. Now give me one in the lips.’ But that was a little bit too much. He put his hand in front of his mouth and we kissed each other. I think when I start kissing him, I play better.”
Puig has never played better than in the last two days. After belting two home runs Friday, the eccentric outfielder smashed three to head the Dodgers’ latest offensive onslaught in their fourth consecutive win. The Dodgers recorded 16 hits and 10 walks. Cody Bellinger went three for five with a home run and six RBIs. Justin Turner overcame a hit-by-pitch scare to finish three for three. Joc Pederson produced three hits. Manny Machado clubbed his 35th home run and 11th with the Dodgers.
The outburst came in support of Rich Hill, who gave up four runs in five innings, and vaulted the Dodgers (82-67) past the Cardinals (81-68) into sole possession of the second wild-card spot in the National League. They also moved into first place in the NL West by half a game over Colorado later in the day when the Rockies lost to the San Francisco Giants 3-0.
“We knew all along we controlled our own destiny,” manager Dave Roberts said.
They got off to a good start Saturday. Turner stroked a one-out single to center and Machado smashed a first-pitch fastball over the wall in right-center field for a quick 2-0 lead. The two-run home run extended the Dodgers’ streak to 23 consecutive games with a homer, one shy of the franchise record set in 1953. It is the longest streak in baseball this season.
The Dodgers were nearly derailed in third inning. After Pederson led off with a single, Turner squared to bunt, a curious decision for the National League’s best hitter since the All-Star break, and couldn’t get out of the way of a fastball in on his hands. The pitch nailed the third baseman on the left wrist, in the same spot he fractured when a pitch hit him in March.
Turner could not conceal the pain. He was crouched down holding his left hand and writhing. The Dodgers’ season suddenly hung in the balance. Luckily, Turner wears a pad where the pitch drilled him. His wrist throbbed, but the cushion absorbed some of the impact. He completed the game — at least temporarily soothing any anxiety over his status.
Los Angeles later loaded the bases and left them that way without scoring a run. Puig compensated for the Dodgers’ wastefulness in the third with a 423-foot leadoff homer in the fourth. A three-run cushion seemed ample for Hill. The left-hander had yielded only an infield single through three innings. He had five strikeouts.
But with one out in the fourth, he walked Paul DeJong, Marcell Ozuna and Jedd Gyorko, loading the bases for Patrick Wisdom. Pitching coach Rick Honeycutt paid him a visit. Hill was suddenly reeling.
Hill jumped out 0-2 on Wisdom, signaling an escape was perhaps possible. But his next pitch was a hanging curveball and Wisdom swatted it 427 feet into Big Mac Land. Wisdom pounded his chest as he rounded first base and delivered a curtain call. With the Cardinals leading 4-3 Hill unleashed his frustration on an innocent water cooler when the inning was over.
“I made too many bad pitches in a row,” Hill said.
The momentum was fleeting. Turner ignited a five-run fifth inning with a leadoff single. Two walks loaded the bases for Bellinger, coaxing Cardinals manager Mike Shildt to replace Gant with the left-handed Tyler Webb. Bellinger lined a two-out single anyway to push the Dodgers ahead again and bring Shildt out for another pitching change with Puig up next. Shildt elected to insert right-hander Mike Mayers. He was playing the conventional matchup even though Puig carries stark reverse splits.
The outfielder entered Saturday with an .879 on-base-plus-slugging percentage against righties, over 200 points higher than his mark against lefties. He supported the numbers by drilling a 114.3-mph missile over the left-field wall for a three-run homer. He added another three-run shot off another right-hander, Luke Weaver, in the eighth to complete his first three-homer game as a major leaguer.
It was his fifth home run in nine at-bats, and 21st this season. He is 11 for 20 with six home runs in his last four starts. Roberts attributed the recent success to a heightened focus. Puig brushed that assessment aside. Instead, he theorized that the grasshoppers infesting Busch Stadium this weekend have fueled his outsized production. He said he considered eating one for money and might start breeding them at his house.
“He’s focused and he understands the importance of every pitch,” Roberts said. “And when he does that, he’s as good as anybody in baseball.”
Whatever the reason, bugs or concentration, his undeniable talent has been unleashed. He is mashing baseballs. He is doling out kisses. And on Saturday, the Dodgers rode him to another victory.
Sept. 16, 12:10 a.m.: This article was updated to report that the Dodgers moved into first place in the National League West.
This article was originally published at 4:05 p.m. on Sept. 15.