The tying run rushed into third base, and after an afternoon of offensive futility, Dodgers Manager Dave Roberts allowed optimism to fill his mind. His team had pushed across five runs during the final two innings against Arizona, including three in the ninth. Now there were runners at the corners and only one out. Two days of miserable situational hitting could be erased in one moment.
“I thought we were in a good spot,” Roberts said afterward, inside a clubhouse silenced by a 6-5 defeat.
Into the batter’s box stepped Yasiel Puig. He faced Jake Barrett, a rookie searching for his second career save. Barrett opted to challenge his more experienced foe. Puig fouled off a fastball at the waist. He swung through a fastball at the knees, then laid off an offspeed pitch in the dirt. A fastball down the middle went foul. At last, Puig swung through a below-the-knees slider.
The end came soon after, when Chris Taylor struck out to strand two more runners, upping the team’s total to 10 on the day. Roberts reached out to pat Puig on the back as his outfielder descended into the Dodgers dugout.
“He’s trying to do too much,” Roberts said. “When guys get in scoring position and it gets hot, Yasiel, you can see the tension. And he starts to squeeze the bat too much. I think it’s a case of trying to do too much.”
The Dodgers (52-42) started the second half with a 13-run barrage Friday. But the team ended this series with a pair of defeats. During a weekend when the division-leading Giants were swept by lowly San Diego, the Dodgers gained only one game in the standings.
The spotlight tends to find Puig, even on days like Sunday, when one of his teammates bore more responsibility for the defeat. Kenta Maeda could not complete five innings, unable to pacify the Diamondbacks lineup, and dumped his team in a five-run hole.
On the day before the All-Star break, Maeda authored his most dominant outing as a Dodger. He struck out 13 Padres during seven innings of one-run baseball. He displayed confidence in his fastball, a rare achievement during his rookie season, his first year away from Japan’s Central League.
Maeda regressed Sunday. He could not bully the Diamondbacks and induce feeble swings on his slider. Arizona battered him for three runs in the first inning. Maeda struggled to recover.
“I think the three runs in the first inning really took a toll,” Maeda said. “I couldn’t get into my rhythm after that.”
Maeda played with an unorthodox group of defenders behind him. Roberts did not assemble his lineup by dropping names into a hat and plucking them out at random; it only appeared that way. He fashioned a batting order packed with right-handed hitters to face Diamondbacks left-hander Robbie Ray. Puig played center field.
Puig wore a special pair of shoes for the occasion. A friend in Los Angeles designed cleats for him with broadcaster Vin Scully’s visage adorned on the side, and the phrase “Win for Vin!” near the laces.
“I play baseball, and I like the way that he narrates,” Puig said through an interpreter. “After 67 years of work, he deserves his respect.”
Puig had not started in center field since the final game of the 2014 regular season. He did not wait long for action. With two runners aboard, third baseman Jake Lamb hit a single into center. Puig dived for it, only to see the ball bounce in front of him for an RBI single.
Up next, Arizona outfielder Brandon Drury smacked an 89-mph fastball into right-center. Puig could not cut the baseball off, and it rolled to the warning track. Drury received credit for a two-run double.
Lamb struck again in the third when he walloped a hanging curveball for a solo home run. He devastated the Dodgers this weekend, hitting the tying double off of Kenley Jansen on Saturday and tripling and scoring the winning run three innings later.
“When you make a mistake over the plate, he makes you pay,” Roberts said. “And he’s seeing the ball really well.”
In the fifth, Maeda opted for five consecutive offspeed pitches to Ray. Ray took advantage of a flat changeup and doubled. Michael Bourn flicked a curveball into the left-field corner for an RBI double.
Maeda exited, and the Dodgers drifted toward a defeat. The offense awakened in the eighth when Justin Turner hit a two-run homer. Corey Seager drilled his third double of the game to bring in a run in the ninth. Turner followed up with a two-run single.
After another single by rookie outfielder Andrew Toles, it was up to Puig. He could not catch up to the fastballs of Barrett. And he could not handle his offspeed choices. He heard his manager’s rationale for his struggle, but did not agree.
“It’s not that I’m squeezing the bat too hard,” Puig said. “It’s that I’m not connecting. But there are 78 games to go. We’ll be all right.”