LOS ANGELES -- From the start, the Dodgers' legendary announcer Vin Scully was blown away by Yasiel Puig. There was something right away about Puig's extraordinary talent, mixed with his unpredictable nature, that spoke to Scully's poetic sensibilities.
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And on the air, Scully just naturally began calling Puig the "Wild Horse."
"I'm not sure where it came from," Vin told me one day. "It just was something that I observed about how Yasiel plays. He reminds you that baseball is a game that touches all the emotions. Yasiel Puig can connect with all those emotions … in one inning."
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The Wild Horse has indeed spent his still-young baseball life thrilling and frustrating, delighting and driving people up the wall, all of it in equal measure. Puig makes throws that explode the mind. He makes blunders that leave you dazed. For weeks at a time, you can't get him out. And then the next few weeks, Puig can't get a hit. He's been injured, demoted, fined, benched and threatened. He's also played such exquisite and joyful baseball that he can make your heart sing.
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There was a Puig moment in Game 1 of the Dodgers' National League Division Series presented by T-Mobile against the D-backs. It was the bottom of the seventh, Arizona had just hit a couple of home runs to knock Clayton Kershaw out of the game and pull to within three runs. Puig led off the inning, and he ripped the ball down the third-base line and into the corner. This was the Puig triple, and you have probably seen his reaction to it … he slid into third and generally went crazy, wagging his tongue, making some sort of professional wrestler face. It was funny and weird and exhilarating. He didn't even score; the Dodgers stranded him on third. It didn't matter, that was the play people will remember.
But it wasn't the end of that play that I think of now. Instead, it was when Puig was about four steps from second base. That's when he clearly made the decision to go for a triple … and it was like he launched himself into light speed. You could almost hear an engine roar. It was extraordinary, watching this big man (6-foot-2, 240 pounds) taking off like that. Puig looked like Rams running back Todd Gurley in the open field or the Cleveland Cavaliers' LeBron James on the breakaway. Nobody, not even the fastest players, can take your breath away like that.
It feels as if Puig might just make these playoffs his stage. He was amazing against Arizona. Puig hit .455 in the series, drew a couple of walks, drove in four runs and played what has become typically fantastic defense (he absolutely should be in the Gold Glove discussions) and left everyone desperate for more.
And he did it the Puig way. He licked his bat. He made faces after licking his bat. Puig flipped his bat after a bloop single. He made every catch with what one close observer lyrically calls "a Matador's flair."
And that has divided people for years.
Some say, "That's so much fun, I love it."
Some say, "That's so unnecessary and will hurt the team some day."
This is the conundrum of the Wild Horse. It's no secret that Puig has, for years now, been a difficult issue for the Los Angeles Dodgers. It often seemed that every spark of brilliance was packaged with two jolts of foolishness. It is hard inside a clubhouse to appreciate a player doing magical things when you know that tomorrow he might just lose a game by simply not paying attention.
This year, though, it has been much better. Maybe it is a sign of maturity; Puig turned 26 in December, he has been in the big leagues for five years, he has been on the brink more than once. He's had two sons and has another on the way. There's a sense that he plays with a new sense of himself. Puig played a career-high 152 games in 2017, and set career highs in homers (28), RBIs (74) and stolen bases (15), and he made only one error all season.
"I see you guys in the World Series," Puig said after hitting a walk-off double in August, one joyous moment in an overwhelmingly joyous season.
Yes, even with that, there were Wild Horse moments. In June, Puig made obscene gestures at fans in Cleveland and was suspended. In one game, he was so casual fielding a one-hopper base hit into the outfield that the runner just took second on him -- causing some to demand that Puig be immediately benched to learn his lesson. He did get benched for a couple of games for ending a game on an ill-advised steal attempt and being late to batting practice.
Even Puig's most vehement critics concede it was more good than bad this year, more genius and less drama. And then came these playoffs and, so far, Puig has been incredible. Puig a couple of years ago struck out in seven consecutive postseason at-bats. This year, he struck out once the whole series. Dodgers fans are in love all over again.
"This is as good as we've seen him focus on every single pitch in the game," Dodgers manager Dave Roberts said. "When you combine that skill set that he has and the energy that he brings, he doesn't only energize 50,000 people, he energizes everyone in that clubhouse."
The Dodgers have bigger stars and, frankly, better players than Puig. Kershaw is the best pitcher of his generation. Kenley Jansen has been as shutdown as a shutdown closer can be.
And yet, you get this feeling that the Dodgers' postseason hopes still revolve around Puig. It has been almost 30 years since the Dodgers have been to the World Series, and over those three decades, they have had amazing teams loaded with amazing players. But time and again, they were stopped short.
The whole "X factor" cliche gets overused, and few people seem to even know what it means to begin with. But maybe X is the the exact right letter for Puig. He can do anything on a baseball diamond. He can beat teams with his speed, his power, his hitting talents, his defense, his arm. Puig electrifies crowds, both home and away, with the way he plays the game. In the NLDS, he got the biggest cheers in Dodger Stadium, the biggest boos when the Dodgers went to Arizona, and you figure it will be that way throughout the postseason.
Yes, maybe Puig is the X, the one marking the spot, the one in the center square, the constant in the algebra problem, the multiplication sign in the Dodgers' hopes. If the Wild Horse keeps going like this, you wonder if anyone can catch him or the Dodgers.