Dodgers’ benching of Yasiel Puig: Good move, bad follow-through
The message, it seemed, was as powerful as one of his rocket throws, and as painful as each of his reckless blunders.
If Yasiel Puig was going to continue to ignore the Dodgers’ coaches, then he would sit next to them.
That’s where the increasingly aggravating phenom began Tuesday’s game in Miami against the Marlins, Puig being sent to the bench like a six-year-old being placed in timeout.
But the Dodgers didn’t stick to the lesson plan. In the sixth inning of a tie game, Manager Don Mattingly relented by allowing Puig to enter the game as part of a double switch.
School was out and so, too, was the baseball, as Puig led off the eighth inning with a first-pitch home run to propel the Dodgers a 6-4 victory.
Yeah, right — crazy, silly, troubling, triumphant, all of it, all at once. In that one moment, Puig picking a pitch off his ankles and crushing it off the top of the left-field fence, one could see the Dodgers’ dilemma in dealing with their frustrating young star.
They need less of Puig’s reckless on-field behavior. They need less of his arrogant refusal to listen to instruction. They need less of an attitude that infuriates umpires.
But they love the victories that the reckless, arrogant attitude produces.
They needed to bench him Tuesday. But they couldn’t bear to bench him for the entire game.
He needs to learn. But Mattingly showed that he’s unwilling to possibly sacrifice a victory to finish the lecture.
Puig’s antics are the sort that will cost a team in a close game in October. For every playoff game that Puig wins with his bold arm or crazy legs, he could cost them two. But, as Tuesday proved, the Dodgers are unwilling to use an August night in Miami to address that possibility.
With one swing Puig won a game, but, in playing him, the Dodgers risked losing much more.
Mattingly initially said the reason for the benching was “simply baseball,” but it was anything but simple. It was part educational, part punitive, and 100% necessary. It was the Dodgers attempting to teach Puig that, even at its most dazzling, imprudent play has inherent consequences.
Puig’s energy sparked one of the hottest streaks in baseball history — the Dodgers are 48-20 in games in which he’s played — but his accompanying swagger is becoming a detriment and distraction. The Dodgers needed to temporarily derail him before he permanently derails them.
Tuesday was the perfect occasion, as he was coming off a terrible weekend on the field in Philadelphia, and a disturbing night in Miami in the dugout.
In a three-game series against the Phillies, he was picked off, he was thrown out trying to advance on a short pop fly, he missed two cutoff men, and he fought with an umpire. On Monday night in Miami, he melted down in the dugout after striking out, storming through uncomfortable teammates while shouting and gesturing at home-plate umpire John Hirschbeck.
It was shocking that Hirschbeck didn’t throw him out. It was not shocking that a day later, the Dodgers finally sat him down — the first time he’s been benched for what could be considered disciplinary reasons.
Of course, their decision was made easier by the fact that in the previous seven games, he was hitting .167 with seven strikeouts, no walks and only one run batted in. That decision seemed to make even more sense when, shortly after the lineup card was posted, Puig showed up 30 minutes late and was promptly fined.
It appeared that the Dodgers were done talking about his issues and were finally going to act.
“Have we addressed this with him pretty much every day? Absolutely,” General Manager Ned Colletti said Tuesday in a phone interview, later adding. “It’s something that needs to be addressed — it’s vital.”
Colletti noted that Mattingly makes out the lineup card, so he couldn’t comment on the actual benching, but he understands the problems.
“Some days he thinks he can outrun any baseball, and his arm is good enough that nobody can outrun him,” Colletti said of Puig. “But that’s not how it always works in the big leagues. He needs to understand how good the other players are.”
Colletti said Puig is constantly reminded that not only do other teams have good players, they also have good scouts, and that opponents are now counting on capitalizing on his bold bloopers.
“We tell him, ‘Teams are now playing us in a way that they sense you’re going to make a mistake,’” Colletti said. “You would think that anybody’s pride would get tested at that point.”
Turns out, on Tuesday, it was the Dodgers’ pride that was tested. After what happened, do they have the fortitude to bench him again?
There is one easy way out of this problem. That would be Matt Kemp. The Dodgers desperately need the return of the injured Kemp — giving them four outfielders for three spots — so Puig can be benched more often down the stretch and be allowed to grow more slowly into the game. Kemp could be back as soon as Sept. 1, and for Puig’s development, it will not be soon enough.
Until then, they will have to carefully navigate this Yasiel Puig tightrope that stretches between the daring and the destructive.
On Tuesday, they walked about halfway, then fell on their faces. Dodgers win. Dodgers lose.
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