Relationship with Ward helping Puig blossom
Hitting coach dedicated to aiding fun-loving outfielder's success
HOUSTON -- More than a dozen reporters from across the country jockeyed for time at Yasiel Puig's table for the start of World Series Media Day on Monday at Dodger Stadium, and the first questions the outfielder heard either started or ended with two words: Turner Ward.
With each question lobbed his way, Puig turned his head to his right and barked at the Dodgers' hitting coach, who sat at the table next to him.
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"Hey, Turner! Turner! The people are asking about you," Puig joked. "They know I don't like you. Come here and give me a kiss. This is the World Series."
Ward obliged, shuffling over to Puig's table, wrapping both arms around the outfielder's neck from behind and giving him a big smooch on his right cheek.
It has been Puig's bat licking, tongue wagging, bat flipping and newly dyed blue hair that has received the attention this month. But it is his play on the field and his relationship with Ward that will be most remembered if the Dodgers win the Fall Classic.
Puig isn't new and improved. He's just better than he was, and he can thank Ward for the change of pace. The timing is perfect. The Dodgers and Astros split the first two games of the World Series in Los Angeles, and now the Series shifts to Houston for three games starting Friday.
Puig's only hit in the World Series so far was his home run in the bottom of the 10th inning in the 7-6 loss in Game 2 on Wednesday. The sold-out crowd at Dodger Stadium chanted, "Let's go Puig! Let's go Puig!" every time he stepped into the batter's box.
"[Ward] is a good hitting coach, and he's given me a lot of information," Puig said. "He tells me to take it easy at home plate and hit the best pitch that I can. I don't swing at balls in the dirt and things like that anymore. I'm very grateful to him and my teammates for not giving up on me."
Puig defected from Cuba in the winter of 2012 and signed with the Dodgers later that year. His tenure with the club has been entertaining, at times maddening, brilliant and puzzling. The enigmatic player was demoted to Triple-A Oklahoma City at the end of last season, and he spent the offseason on the trading block.
Puig responded this year with one of the best seasons of his career and a postseason to remember. According to Statcast™, Puig, who has a reputation as a free-swinger, chased only 27 percent of pitches out of the strike zone during the regular season, and he has chased just 19.8 percent during the postseason -- both career bests. His swing-and-miss percentage on in-zone pitches is a career-low 11.9 percent.
"I think, No. 1, he's taking more walks," Dodgers manager Dave Roberts said. "And if you want to kind of dig into that, he's just been way more disciplined in the strike zone, where I think in years past a walk was not necessarily looked at as a positive for him. And now he's understanding that to be able to keep the line moving, there's a lot of value in that."
Puig has walked six times in 10 postseason games this year. He walked 64 times during the regular season, the second most of his career.
"I look at it a lot like my time in Arizona with Paul Goldschmidt," said Ward, who was part of the D-backs' coaching staff for three years before joining the Dodgers in 2016. "Goldy wanted to be the best, and he became a sponge. Yasiel can be a little bit more stubborn, but stubbornness can be great. You just can't be so stubborn that you are not willing to learn and grow. He knew he needed to get better, and he knew he had to make some minor adjustments."
The admiration is mutual. Puig bear-hugs Ward and kisses him on the cheek after every home run. He planted one on his cheek during pregame introductions before his team's 3-1 victory against the Astros in Game 1 at Dodger Stadium on Tuesday.
"That's our thing. That's what we do," Puig said. "We have been doing it all season, so of course I was going to give him a kiss in the World Series. It was a big game, a special game for us."
Ward's first real interaction with Puig came in 2013 in a benches-clearing incident between the D-backs and Dodgers at Dodger Stadium. Puig, who was clipped by a pitch in the nose during the game, punched D-backs infielder Eric Hinske in the back of the head during the fracas. Ward was hit twice in the stomach by Dodgers reliever J.P. Howell and slammed into the railing near the camera well.
Hinske was recently named the hitting coach for the Angels, adding another interesting wrinkle to the Freeway Series.
"My friends ask me how I can love a person that tried to tear my head off a few years ago," Ward said. "But they are just watching that situation from afar. What I see now is a person full of love and compassion. How would I ever know that this would happen, that we would be so close? There's no way I would know that.
"Don't get me wrong. It's been hard. Sometimes he can be difficult, but sometimes your own kids can be difficult. I say he's my 16-year-old. He's just a little kid, and my kids love him. All kids love him."
The relationship began in earnest during Spring Training in 2016 after an hour-long conversation when Puig shared the dangerous and painful details of his defection from Cuba. The story brought Ward to tears. He still gets choked up when he thinks about what Puig has sacrificed to be in the United States.
"I know he wants to be the best, and there's nothing like knowing someone wants to be the very best," Ward said. "I decided that day that I was going to do everything in my power to help this kid. I challenged him, and I gave him permission to call me out. But on the flipside, I told him I was going to call him out, too. I think that trust and accountability we have has worked for both of us."
If all goes according to their plan, Puig will keep planting playful smooches on Ward. He says he'll continue to bat flip on singles and wag his tongue because baseball is supposed to be fun. In a funny twist, Puig put his bat down gently after his home run Wednesday, in what can be best described as an anti-bat flip. In the fourth inning, Astros first baseman Yuli Gurriel, who once played against Puig in Cuba, drew a 94-mph laser throw to third from the outfielder. Puig then struck a pose.
"The Dodgers fans have been waiting for this moment for 29 years, and now it's time to bring back the trophy," Puig said. "I'm going to do my best and do my crazy stuff. This is one of the biggest moments of my career."