The flight of the baseball, arcing in a parabola against the inky sky, afforded Yasiel Puig the luxury of admiration. He took seven steps to marvel at his first home run of the 2017 season before starting his trot around the bases after swatting a solo shot in the fourth inning of a Dodgers 3-1 victory over San Diego on Wednesday.
As Puig circled the diamond, Dodger Stadium reverberated with appreciation.
Inside the plans of the Dodgers, Puig occupies a secondary role. He bats eighth in the lineup. The organization attempted to trade him last summer. His performance will dictate his playing time this summer.
Yet, inside this ballpark, in the eyes of the patrons who pay much to watch this team perform, Puig still shimmers like a star. He can still re-create the frenzy of 2013 and 2014, when his bat and his arm and his legs transfixed the entire sport. He can still allow people to dream.
The dreamers saw all they needed in Wednesday’s fourth inning. Puig teetered off balance as he swung at a changeup thrown by Trevor Cahill. The lower half of Puig scarcely moved. His arms generated enough strength to punish Cahill, anyway, as he followed through on the approach he has designed with hitting coach Turner Ward.
“What I think about is putting the ball in the air,” Puig said through an interpreter. “Or else I’m going to have no money in my pocket.”
In 2016, Puig hit 11 home runs, the same number he had produced in 79 games in 2015. He ranked eighth on the team in homers. The responsibility for runs shifted from Puig to the more reliable bats of players like Corey Seager, Justin Turner, Joc Pederson and Yasmani Grandal.
As the Dodgers ponder how their offense might improve in 2017, Puig represents an asset capable of achieving an upgrade. One swing will not change his trajectory. But it cannot hurt.
“That was a big hit for us, that homer,” manager Dave Roberts said.
On Wednesday, the offense supplied enough support to hand Rich Hill a victory. Hill struck out five batters and gave up one run and two hits in five innings.
He departed after only 75 pitches, in deference to his truncated outings last month in spring training.
Hill often sputters through spring training, and his first preseason as a Dodger unfolded in erratic fashion. At times, he looked transcendent. At times, he looked incapable of taming his curveball. Hill uses only two pitches, his fastball and his curve, bending the shape and toggling the speed of the latter to deceive hitters. When he throws the pitch for strikes, opponents struggle to make contact.
The pitch bent to his demand Wednesday. Hill did not give up a hit until the fourth inning. He benefited from lowering his arm slot closer to sidearm delivery.
“I made a few mechanical adjustments,” Hill said. “I was able to repeat. It felt good.”
By the fourth, the lineup had already handed Hill a two-run advantage.
Seager started the rally with a one-out, opposite-field double. Two batters later, Adrian Gonzalez roped a run-scoring, opposite-field ground-rule double, punching a fastball into the left-field corner.
San Diego gifted the Dodgers a run in the next at-bat. Logan Forsythe chopped a grounder toward third baseman Ryan Schmipf. The throw to first baseman Wil Myers was true. Myer’s grip was not. He dropped the ball, which allowed Gonzalez to lope home.
Hill suffered a scare in his first at-bat of the season. A 92-mph sinker struck his right wrist. Hill recoiled in pain upon impact. Roberts and a member of the training staff raced to first base. Hill stayed in the game and managed a grin. He joked that his on-base percentage was 1.000.
Hill has been playing professional baseball since 2002. Never before had he been hit by a pitch. He could not recall being hit in college or high school either. He could laugh, because an X-ray on the wrist came back negative.
“It was great,” Hill said. “I feel like a baseball player.”
In the fourth, Hill surrendered a single to Myers. Hill became fixated on the Padre at first base, intent on catching him before a swipe of second. After five attempts, Hill picked off Myers.
The move was well-timed. On his next pitch, Hill left a curveball at the thighs of outfielder Hunter Renfroe. Renfroe waffled the pitch over the fence in left field.
Hill pitched only one more inning. He left just as San Diego turned over its batting order for the third time.
Sergio Romo survived two well-struck balls in the sixth inning. Alex Wood handled the seventh and eighth innings. Kenley Jansen picked up his first save of the season.
And Puig, with one big swing, had captivated his fan base once more.
“My teammates are doing a great job,” Puig said. “They’ve all been doing a great job. Now it’s my turn.”
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