Ailene Voisin

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Ailene Voisin: Puig has pumped life into Dodgers

07/07/2013 12:00 AM

07/08/2013 8:27 AM

SAN FRANCISCO – He has kicked a ball into the stands, thrown to the wrong base, been caught trying to stretch a double into a triple. He has been humbled by AT&T Park's famously cranky right-field corner. And in Saturday's rematch with Madison Bumgarner, he struck out three times – going down swinging each time.

But Yasiel Puig is a rookie, remember. The Dodgers didn't expect him to be perfect. They had no clue he would become the next L.A. sensation – a development without an escape clause now that Dwight Howard has skipped town.

"I've seen guys come up and do OK early on," Dodgers manager Don Mattingly said before his club's 4-2 loss to the Giants, "but not like this. (Mike) Trout. (Bryce) Harper. This is the same kind of phenomenon, probably with less hype because we didn't know anything about him until spring training."

The name still doesn't exactly roll off the tongue, but Puig (PWEEG) is an acquired sound that is fast becoming a familiar name. Barely five weeks into his major-league career, he has helped kick-start the underperforming Dodgers, put up numbers that link him with a young Joe DiMaggio, and ignited a lively debate about his worthiness as an All-Star candidate.

Yes? No? Puig isn't on the National League roster announced Saturday, but he could still be added to the team, as there is one spot available, to be determined by fan vote Wednesday. His competition includes Ian Desmond, Freddie Freeman, Adrian Gonzalez and Hunter Pence.

Figures there would be a popular Giant in the mix. The Giants are slumping, the Dodgers are surging, and both teams appear headed toward a crazy August and September and an even crazier autumn. Two months ago, no one would have predicted this. The World Series champions six games under .500.

The Dodgers displaying a pulse, and more importantly, being invigorated by a precocious outfielder who, in fact, physically resembles fellow countryman Yoenis Cespedes.

At this rate, Puig, who signed a seven-year, $42 million contract, is a basement bargain. His arm strength is exceptional and his hitting numbers are mind boggling. He is one of only three players with 50 hits in their first 30 games (say hello to DiMaggio), and even after Saturday's 0-for-4, four-strikeout futility, is hitting .407 with eight homers and 19 RBIs.

"He's got a lot of superhero in him," said Dodgers infielder Jerry Hairston Jr. "In his mind, he feels he can make that single into a double.

"I've kind of joked with him. He's not an invisible guy out there. They see him running, and big-league players can throw the bases. They're accurate.

"You've got to make the adjustments and know there are guys behind you who can drive in runs."

True, on most days. Not true on Saturday. While Dodgers general manager Ned Colletti was finalizing a trade for starter Ricky Nolasco, his team was searching for some offense. Puig especially. Bumgarner, who accounted for nine of the Dodgers 12 strikeouts, repeatedly tempted the 6-foot-3, 245-pounder to chase high, tight fastballs.

"From what we know of him (Puig), if he goes out of the strike zone, he's like everybody else," said Mattingly. "You're not going to hit. He was a little bit overly aggressive."

The getting-to-know-you phase thus continues, though with little help from Puig, who seldom makes himself available to members of the media and made no exception following Saturday's frustrating game.

Colletti recalled the phone call he received from a scout raving about a "five-tool" player who had defected from Cuba and was living in Mexico.

The team's pursuit of Puig, the GM added, inspired the organization's renewed involvement in Mexico and Latin America.

"After Fernando (Valenzuela), our (former) owners kind of pulled back some," said Colletti, noting that his team has signed 40 additional prospects from Mexico and Latin America. "It was kind of sad because we had been one of the forerunners. You start to look at the teams in contention, you see they've done great jobs down there. We wanted to get back to that.

"So we signed Puig not only for the talent, but also the credibility, to serve notice to the rest of baseball."

Meantime, there is Puig, 22, his All-Star prospects, his influence on the current Dodgers, his Saturday struggles.

"I look at him as more like Trout than Harper, from the standpoint of sheer speed," added Mattingly. "Harper runs good, but not like those guys. He's been good for us. He brings a ton of energy. He's a kid, and now he's in the big leagues. He's hitting almost .500. It can't be that bad."

Call The Bee's Ailene Voisin (916) 321-1208 and follow her on Twitter @ailene_voisin.

About This Blog

Ailene Voisin, who has been with The Sacramento Bee since 1997, writes columns on a variety of sports, from the NBA, NFL and baseball to local high schools. Voisin previously worked for the San Diego Union, Los Angeles Herald-Examiner and Atlanta Journal-Constitution. She has been a beat writer covering the Dodgers, Angels and Clippers. Contact her at avoisin@sacbee.com or 916-321-1208. Twitter: @ailene_voisin.

 

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