One of the Dodgers’ biggest postseason worries showed up Tuesday night, clearing benches, raising tempers, risking everything.
As long as Yasiel Puig continues to struggle with his emotions, the Dodgers will awkwardly struggle to dodge their flames.
The tempestuous outfielder allowed San Francisco Giants pitcher Madison Bumgarner to get into his head by hitting his foot Tuesday night in a first-inning plunking incident that nearly started a brawl. The Dodgers wound up with a 4-2 victory that pushed them to within one game of clinching their second consecutive National League West title, but the message from that early messy moment is one that could dog the Dodgers deep into October.
Puig cannot be the sort of cornerstone this team craves until he begins leading with his head instead of his heart. As much as the Dodgers value him, they still can’t really trust him, and that scares the heck out of them.
The incident occurred in the first inning, with Bumgarner smarting from a stunning leadoff home run by Justin Turner. Up next was Puig, who fell behind 1 and 2 before Bumgarner hit him on the left foot with an 88-mph slider.
This was the second time in two nights the Giants had hit Puig with a pitch. This was also the second time that Bumgarner had clashed with Puig, as the two exchanged words May 9 in Dodger Stadium when Bumgarner thought Puig was moving too slow around the bases after a bat-flipping home run.
It was understandable that Puig would be upset. But instead of immediately standing up, brushing himself off and running to first base, he sat for several long seconds in the dirt next to home plate, and that is when the trouble started. Bumgarner appeared to yell something at Puig, who turned his head, heard Bumgarner’s chirping, and immediately jumped up and began walking toward the pitcher.
“He looked at me and said, ‘What are you looking at?’ ” Puig said through an interpreter. “I reacted after he made that comment.”
At that point, Bumgarner knew he had Puig rattled, and promptly challenged him to fight.
“C’mon [bleep], let’s go,” Bumgarner shouted.
Puig responded by waving his arms and shouting back as he was being forcibly pushed back by plate umpire Adrian Johnson. Benches quickly cleared, with teammate Matt Kemp running into the batter’s box and grabbing Puig before he did something really dumb. Soon Puig had been pushed into foul territory and was being held and counseled by Manager Don Mattingly while players from both teams sort of milled around, as wondering why they had even bothered.
If the Dodgers had truly thought Puig had been wronged, they would have been fighting about it. But they saw what everyone else saw, a bad pitch that bounced off a foot, a molehill of a mistake that didn’t deserve its own mountain.
Said Mattingly: “I don’t think he’s trying to hit him there, I’d be surprised if he was.”
Said Kemp: “It is what it is, that’s baseball.”
Mattingly said that during their hug, he was reminding Puig of the bigger picture, something the Dodgers will have to keep preaching to him from now until November.
“The best way to respond is play baseball, do it with your arm and glove,” Mattingly said. “I wanted to keep him in the game and not get him too emotional there.”
Nothing really happened during Tuesday night’s ruckus, but lots of things could have happened, and none of them good for the Dodgers. There could have been injuries from a brawl, benchings from suspensions, all sorts of damage which, in these season’s final days, could not be undone.
“There are games to come and I want him playing baseball,” Mattingly said. “He just needs to stay under control, don’t let that thing get escalated and just play baseball.”
As it was, Puig never seemed to gain his composure at the plate. In his ensuing three at-bats, two against Bumgarner, he struck out twice and grounded out while swinging at seven of nine pitches. The Dodgers can only hope this doesn’t derail Puig off his recent hot streak, as he had overcome a late-season lull by hitting .360 in his last 12 games.
Of equal concern is how prospective playoff teams will view their ability to unnerve Puig, particularly their likely first-round opponents from St. Louis. This is a Cardinals team that proved last October it wasn’t afraid to pitch inside, even dramatically changing the National League Championship Series by unapologetically hitting Hanley Ramirez in the ribs. This is also a Cardinals team that saw Puig melt down in right field in last season’s deciding Game 6.
The Cardinals will be coming after Puig. And if the Dodgers advance to the NLCS against the probable top-seeded Washington Nationals, expect Matt Williams’ feisty team to do the same.
“The moment passed ... we moved forward,” Puig said in summing up Tuesday night.
Has it? Will he? The Dodgers can only hope.