Be­yond the lip shtick

Puig’s play­ful kisses hint at pos­i­tive changes he’s made with coach Ward’s help

Los Angeles Times - - SPORTS - DY­LAN HER­NAN­DEZ

NEW YORK — 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, then threw his head back and laughed.

Watch­ing Puig crack him­self up, it was hard to re­call a time when 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.

In­cred­i­bly, the player who once was 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.”

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 pre­vi­ous 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 odd­son 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-tothird 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.”

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

“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 year 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 off­sea­son 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.”

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 to­ward 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,” he 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 in pre­vi­ous sea­sons. If he were hit­ting 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 best­case was con­tend­ing for a triple crown, this sea­son has fallen some­where be­tween the two ex­tremes. The Dodgers will take it. Puig will too.

Chris Wil­liams As­so­ci­ated Press

MER­CU­RIAL right fielder Yasiel Puig (66) and rock-steady hit­ting coach Turner Ward have a bond that is ben­e­fit­ing the fast-ma­tur­ing Dodger at the plate. Puig has 21 home runs, a ca­reer best, and 54 RBIs, on pace for a ca­reer high, de­spite bat­ting in the No. 8 spot.

John Swart As­so­ci­ated Press

DON BAY­LOR, hit­ting a grand slam against Mil­wau­kee in 1982, be­came the An­gels’ cat­a­lyst right af­ter join­ing the club in 1977 via free agency.

Elsa Gar­ri­son Getty Images

NO LONGER re­ceiv­ing star treat­ment, or seek­ing it, Yasiel Puig has fit in well with team­mates as the Dodgers have soared.

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