LOS ANGELES -- Yasiel Puig sure knows how to rise to a moment. He did that often for the Dodgers, and on Monday, the right fielder made a little magic against the Dodgers.
In his first career at-bat against his old club, Puig slugged a first-inning, two-run home run off Clayton Kershaw. But in the top of the ninth inning, it was another former Dodgers outfielder in Matt Kemp who hit a go-ahead RBI single off of Kenley Jansen. Los Angeles answered in the bottom of the ninth with Joc Pederson’s two-run, walk-off home run against Raisel Iglesias that sent Cincinnati to a 4-3 loss at Dodger Stadium.
Puig, Kemp, Kyle Farmer and Alex Wood -- all sent to the Reds as part of a seven-player offseason trade -- were given pregame tributes on the video board and loud ovations. The loudest cheers were reserved for Puig, and it was repeated when he stepped to the plate and raised his helmet in appreciation.
“It felt like something special today,” Puig said of the early reception from 52,974 fans. “There were a lot of people, a lot of fans at the game. All the fans were chanting my name and gave me an ovation. This made me happy. I don’t know why people did that. Probably, it’s because I did the best job I could do the last six years here for the city.”
The homer came on a 1-2 pitch from Kershaw with one out in the first. Puig lifted it to deep center field. After pausing a moment to watch the ball in flight, he tossed his bat and raised his arms with excitement before circling the bases.
“I wish I could’ve done anything but give up a homer to Puig on the first at-bat, but he put a great swing on the ball,” said Kershaw after his 2019 debut. “Unfortunately, I’ve seen him do that for a while here."
Reds manager David Bell admitted to being amazed how Puig delivered in that situation.
“You almost saw it coming, which is saying a lot against Clayton Kershaw,” Bell said. “You just saw something big happening tonight. The energy from being around him a lot today. That’s the kind of player he is. We’re lucky to have him.”
"I think the fans were pretty shocked, but we weren't that shocked," Kemp said of Puig. "That's something he would do."
Before the game, as Puig was close to concluding a press conference that marked his return to Chavez Ravine, Jansen popped into the interview room and threw a football at the Reds' right fielder.
Puig smiled, got up, gave Jansen a big warm embrace and they chatted briefly.
It highlighted the degree to which Puig appeared to have mixed feelings about his six-year stint with the Dodgers. He was an hour late to the scheduled press conference with mostly Los Angeles media. His tardiness also meant he missed a chance to be given his National League championship ring to commemorate the Dodgers' 2018 World Series appearance.
Puig's former manager, Dave Roberts, gave rings to other former Dodgers now with the Reds -- Kemp, Wood and Farmer.
“Later, I’ll take a photo and say thank you to the Dodgers fans and the whole organization,” Puig said. “You can give it to me in person or give it to my locker. I don’t care about that.”
Roberts did not appear to have hard feelings of a perceived slight and praised Puig’s time with the Dodgers.
“He did a lot of things in the community and helped the Dodgers do a lot of good things," Roberts said. "I’ve been in touch with him through text, talked to him in spring. We’re good.
“When he’s motivated, incentivized, he’s a very good player. So, this is as much motivation as can be in front of him.”
When asked if he wished he had connected with more of his teammates when with the Dodgers, Puig mentioned his good relationships with Jansen, Cody Bellinger and Pederson.
Then, Puig raved about his new team that acquired him as part of a Dec. 21 seven-player trade.
“The Cincinnati organization, we’re talking every day,” Puig said. “Every guy enjoys the dinners, the long stretches we do together and the more Latin players there. We have a good connection between all the teams, the managers, the coaches, the GM, the president, everybody is talking every day. Everybody is at the stadium every day to support us.”
Puig, who became an instant sensation in Cincinnati with his immediate attempts to connect with the team and community, saved his biggest praise for Reds first baseman Joey Votto.
“In Cincinnati, all my teammates are the same. I expect that Joey Votto is going to be the hero of the clubhouse and he said, 'No,'” Puig said. “He’s the best guy I’ve ever met in my life. He has a good career, money, everybody knows him. He’s been in the league for I don’t know how many years -- more than me. He talks to me every day, texts me and tries to be a better person than myself. That’s a reason I love and I respect him. … He’s a great teammate. That’s a reason he does all the stuff that he does for myself and for the other players. I love that for him and I want to do better things in baseball and outside of baseball, too.”
Many Reds and Dodgers fans enjoy Puig’s eccentricities, such as licking his bat. In Los Angeles, there was also the frustrating side, where he was sometimes late to team meetings, clashed with teammates or had mental lapses on the field.
With the Reds, Bell considers him to be a model player. Made aware that Puig was late to his media obligation, Bell replied that he’s always been punctual for team functions, such as hitters’ meetings.
“That wouldn't be the first thing I would talk about it, it'd be more about how he's played the game, the kind of teammate he's been. He's been outstanding, we love having him here,” Bell said. “He's played hard, he's played to win. He loves being here.”
Ready to look ahead, Puig was ready to make the most of the three-game series against his former club.
“I’m excited to be here,” Puig said. “I did miss this place because all the fans coming every day and supporting me for six years. I’m excited to play my old teammates. I faced them two times in Spring Training, but we’re playing around in Spring Training. Now, this is serious. We’re here to do the best we can as a team and try to beat the Dodgers.”
Puig, who also hit a seventh-inning single, is off to a slow start for Cincinnati and is batting .191/.224/.383 with 13 strikeouts in 47 at-bats. But he has two homers, hit on back-to-back days. On Sunday vs. the Cardinals, he hit an eighth-inning homer with the game out of reach in a 9-5 loss.
“He’s getting closer. Absolutely,” Bell said. “Two home runs in two days is a really good sign. I know he’s been working at it. The great thing about Yasiel is the way he’s played defensively while the hits aren’t coming easy for him. That’s been the most impressive thing, the way he’s done everything else. He wants to win and he’s doing what he can while he’s not hitting. That’s not always easy to do. It says a lot about him as a player."
Puig acknowledged that his first at-bat vs. the Dodgers was special. He just wished the game outcome rose to that level as well.
“I miss the fans and seeing the stadium full and chanting my name all of the time when I go up to bat or make a good throw,” Puig said. “Last year in the World Series, I hit a home run. People were chanting my name, and that made me excited and made me play the best I can every day when I go out. That’s what I was feeling today. I tried to do the best I can today facing Kershaw, and the first day back in Los Angeles. For myself, I had a good game, but my team lost. I’m not feeling too happy right now.”
Mark Sheldon has covered the Reds for MLB.com since 2006, and previously covered the Twins from 2001-05. Follow him on Twitter @m_sheldon and Facebook.