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Energetic Puig positions Dodgers for second-half run

Outfielder's all-out style gives LA spark it needs to meet lofty expectations @RichardJustice

Two hours earlier, Dodgers general manager Ned Colletti and manager Don Mattingly had gathered their four starting outfielders to remind them they couldn't all play at once. They asked for patience.

"You never know what's going to happen," Colletti said.

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For instance, during Spring Training we kept reminding him the Dodgers had eight starting pitchers for a five-man rotation. Somehow, the math did not work. Colletti told us to mind our own business. Only he didn't phrase it exactly like that.

"You never know what's going to happen," he said.

And then one month into the season, the Dodgers had used nine starting pitchers. So, yeah, you never know. And then just when we noticed that with Carl Crawford back from the disabled list, the Dodgers had four starting outfielders -- Matt Kemp, Andre Etheir and Yasiel Puig were the others -- for three spots, something else happened.

Kemp's left shoulder began to scream. That very night. Suddenly, four healthy outfielders became three as Mattingly summoned Crawford from the bench when Kemp headed to the training room.

Maybe this is an omen that things are going to work out for the Dodgers after all. No team began the season with higher expectations. No team was more of a disappointment for 72 games.

But look at them now. As they began a three-game series in Phoenix, they were alone in second place in the National League West, a mere 4 1/2 games behind the D-backs.

If that still sounds like a healthy deficit, it's nothing compared to where they were three weeks ago. On June 21, they were 12 games under .500 (30-42) and 9 1/2 games behind the D-backs.

In a breathtaking 11 days, they went 10-1 and got as close as 2 1/2 games. They were ignited by Puig, the 22-year-old Cuban rookie who batted .419 and is now one of the five NL Final Vote candidates.

He ignited Southern California in a way no Dodgers rookie has since Fernando Valenzuela in 1981. And he played with such recklessness and joy that he impacted every corner of the clubhouse.

To watch the kid run around playing at 100 mph, playing not always smart, but always fast, seemed to inspire others. For instance, on Sunday afternoon, he singled against the Giants and promptly stole second. And then almost without a thought -- actually with no thought at all -- he was thrown out attempting to steal third.

"I could smell it in the air," Vin Scully said. "The wild horse wanted to run."

Indeed, he did. Dodgers coach Davey Lopes talked to Puig about picking his spots, but he also knows he has to choose his words carefully.

The Dodgers have fed off his energy and enthusiasm, and no one wants to do anything to dampen it. If he crashes into a few walls along the way, the Dodgers may have to hold their breath and hope he's OK.

Puig represents everything the Dodgers hope to be, every message they've attempted to send to their fans the last year under new ownership. It's funny what happens to a team when it begins aggressively pursuing talent, that is, pursuing talent everywhere.

The Dodgers' new ownership wanted its fans to know that money would not keep them from returning the franchise to greatness. From Adrian Gonzalez and Zack Greinke to Hyun-Jin Ryu and Crawford, the Dodgers have added more talent than any other club in baseball the last year.

Their goal has been simple: to be a model franchise.

If that means spending millions to upgrade Dodger Stadium or millions more to modernize the player development operation, so be it. If that means outbidding the competition for Puig and Grienke or taking on the big contracts of Crawford and Gonzalez, they were willing to do it.

When the Marlins indicated they were willing to trade right-hander Ricky Nolasco, Colletti jumped. Whether he offered too much or too little, whether he gave up too much or not enough is beside the point. These new Dodgers, these Dodgers of Mark Walter and Stan Kasten and Magic Johnson, are going for it. They believe they're building an organization that will stand the test of time, but for 2013, they want to establish that they're about winning.

And now after a terrible start, after injuries and slumps and a bunch of new pieces that took some time fitting together, the Dodgers have sprinted into the second half of the season positioned to make their first playoff appearance in four years.

With Puig's incredible start energizing the clubhouse and fans, with a rotation strengthened by Nolaso, the Dodgers might just be baseball's most talented team. That guarantees them nothing in September or October.

But at least they're back in the conversation, and an entire sport is better off for it.

Richard Justice is a columnist for Read his blog, Justice4U.

Los Angeles Dodgers, Yasiel Puig