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Dodgers

Column: Yasiel Puig’s return to good graces is sealed with a kiss

Los Angeles Dodgers right fielder Yasiel Puig (66) is shown in the dugout before the first inning of
Yasiel Puig
(John Bazemore / Associated Press)

This is starting to become a routine: Yasiel Puig launching a home run, returning to the bench and wrapping his left arm around Turner Ward’s head, the right fielder’s python-like strangle preventing the hitting coach from freeing himself. Then, it happens. Puig plants his lips on Ward’s cheek.

“Turner Ward is very attractive,” Puig explained in Spanish, throwing his head back and laughing.

Watching Puig crack himself up, it was hard to recall a time he looked or sounded this comfortable in the Dodgers clubhouse.

He is not the face of baseball, or even the Dodgers. The multiple MVP awards that were forecast earlier in his career haven’t materialized and probably never will.

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Incredibly, the player who was once the center of attention has discovered satisfaction as a peripheral figure on baseball’s best team. The former All-Star is now an elite defender who bats eighth for the Dodgers. With a career-high 21 home runs, he is the most dangerous No. 8 hitter in the game, but he is still a No. 8 hitter, which is why players such as Cody Bellinger and Corey Seager have replaced him as media darlings.

“This year, I’m focused on my work,” Puig said.

He said he doesn’t mind his diminished profile, which others are convinced is responsible for this resurgence of sorts.

“He’s coming to the realization he doesn’t have to be a superstar,” third baseman Justin Turner said. “He can just be a player on this team like everyone else. It doesn’t have to be him every night and it’s just as fun when someone else is getting the big hit.”

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Especially if he’s in the major leagues. In the wake of what happened last season, the 26-year-old Puig no longer takes his place here for granted. This time last year, he was in the minor leagues, banished by the Dodgers, who weren’t counting on ever seeing him again on their major league roster. He was a clubhouse nuisance, as was the case in previous seasons. His behavior ceased to be tolerated because he wasn’t producing.

“That couldn’t happen again this year,” he said.

Puig returned to the Dodgers in September and became a solid if unspectacular contributor down the stretch. He was determined to stay.

Over the winter, he focused on losing the extra pounds that were perhaps responsible for the hamstring injuries that sidelined him in each of the last two seasons. He has already played more than he did last year, appearing in 105 of his team’s 112 games.

“I still think the injuries over the last couple years were the biggest deterrent,” General Manager Farhan Zaidi said.

The real change is in how he has managed to maintain his focus. In the past, as the tedium of the six-month regular season set in, his concentration would waver. His weight fluctuated in previous seasons. Not this year.

There is also his defense in right field. Puig wants to win his first Gold Glove Award. Zaidi believes he deserves it.

“I think he’s got to be the odds-on favorite,” Zaidi said. “He’s made spectacular plays. He’s made spectacular plays that haven’t made the highlights because he’s made them look routine. He’s obviously made huge plays with his arm. On singles to right field that are routine first-to-third plays, guys just pull up at second and don’t even think about testing him. That’s another aspect of his defense that doesn’t always get appreciated.”

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How Puig has played the position appeals not only to the sport’s purists, but also to Zaidi’s famous laptop computer.

“The eyeball sees him as a Gold Glover,” Zaidi said. “The metrics see him as a Gold Glover.”

Puig became skeptical about his chances when told the award was voted on by managers and coaches.

“So if the coaches don’t like Puig because he flips his bat …?” Puig asked, playfully throwing up his hands.

Whatever happens, he will have a new career-high in home runs to show for this season. His previous best was 19, in his rookie season in 2013.

Aside from Puig himself, the person most responsible for the power surge is Ward, the team’s second-year hitting coach. On the surface, they are nothing alike, Puig a brash five-tool athlete from Cuba and Ward a former journeyman outfielder who makes his off-season home in Alabama.

Their bond is largely a credit to the patience of Ward, who remained in Puig’s corner when others gave up. The coach resorted to some unusual methods to reach the temperamental outfielder.

“He’d come in there with a bad day, I’d just come give him a big old kiss,” Ward said. “That started last year. Sometimes I would just do that to break up the monotony or the tension of a bad day. I think that just kind of evolved into other things.”

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Such as Puig opening up to Ward, allowing the coach to figure out what made him tick.

“He loves a challenge,” Ward said. “Even in the cage, or he’s at the machine, I’ll say, ‘I bet you can’t hit 10 in a row.’ He kind of feeds off that a little bit.”

Ward has also learned and accepted how Puig expresses himself, which often involves his physicality. Puig playfully slaps or wrestles people he likes, and he likes Ward.

“If someone saw him, sometimes he’ll tackle me in the cage,” Ward said. “They would be like, ‘Oh my God, what’s going on?’ and they would think it’s disrespectful towards me. I don’t look at it that way at all.”

Which is why Puig said he smooches his coach after hitting a home run.

“I bother him a lot, so I have to show him some love, too,” Puig said.

Picturing Puig and Ward made Manager Dave Roberts smile.

“When you see the genuine care they have for one another, it’s pretty cool,” Roberts said. “And you know what? There’s nothing that Turner will say that Yasiel won’t do.”

That includes studying opposing pitchers, something Puig did inconsistently in the past. Puig will usually ask Ward for information about the starting pitcher that day. In the rare instances he doesn’t, Ward makes sure to tell him.

Puig said he isn’t bothered by batting eighth.

“Since I was small, I always said what was most important was to be on the field playing every day,” he said. “If I’m batting eighth, ninth, that’s fine.”

The decision has spared Puig from shouldering the kind of crushing responsibility that burdened him previous seasons. If he were batting second or third, his .258 batting average would be a problem. In the back of the lineup, it’s not.

“If I don’t hit, there’s [Chris] Taylor, Seager, Bellinger, J.T. or any of my other teammates,” Puig said. “I don’t have to worry about trying to do everything. That’s the reason I’m more confident and relaxed this year.”

The feeling extends beyond the field. He hosted a poker tournament earlier this season at Dodger Stadium to raise money for the Yasiel Puig Wild Horse Children’s Foundation. He used more than $30,000 of the proceeds to purchase school supplies for four low-income schools in Los Angeles. He plans to make a similar donation to schools in the Dominican Republic this winter.

“I want to take pressure off parents who are working three, four, five jobs to provide as much as they can for their children,” Puig said.

Some perspective. How about that?

If the worst-case scenario for Puig was a repeat of the midseason drama last year and the best-case was him contending for a triple crown, this season has fallen somewhere between the two extremes. The Dodgers will take it. Puig will, too.

dylan.hernandez@latimes.com

Twitter@dylanohernandez


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