Year after startling debut, Puig hasn't slowed
Dodgers star proves booming, oft-criticized style is no hindrance to production
LOS ANGELES -- One year ago to the day, a character right off a Hollywood studio lot showed up at Dodger Stadium. Yasiel Puig came from Cuba looking like Bo Jackson, muscles piled on top of muscles, and it turned out he could run, hit and throw like Bo, too.
Puig spoke Spanish only, but his supremely confident bearing and demeanor were far more informative than any of his words filtered through an interpreter. There was nothing shy about this guy. He gave the impression of being almost incapable of fear.
Puig wasn't an unknown to his Dodgers teammates. He had been the talk of Spring Training, bashing balls all over the Cactus League grounds in late-game appearances. The general feeling was that Puig couldn't possibly be this good, that he was merely torching secondary arms in meaningless games.
But the bashing continued at Double-A Chattanooga, and on June 3, 2013, with Matt Kemp on the disabled list and the Dodgers sputtering badly, Puig arrived with something to prove. Manager Don Mattingly wrote his name at the top of the lineup card and pointed him to right field against the neighboring Padres.
Finally on the stage he'd dreamed of occupying, having traveled a long, hard road to get here, Puig had every intention of showing the world what he had to offer. It took him all of two hours, 25 minutes to prove he was no ordinary talent. That last minute was the defining moment.
With the Dodgers leading by a run and Brandon League facing Kyle Blanks with Chris Denorfia on first base, a towering drive sliced toward the wall in right. Puig raced back and gloved the ball at the edge of the warning track. Wheeling, with little momentum, he fired a 280-foot strike into the glove of Adrian Gonzalez at first base. Denorfia was doubled up, and a 2-1 victory belonged to the Dodgers.
It took home-plate umpire Mark Wegner a moment to raise his arm with the out signal as he moved up the line toward first. He seemed as stunned as the players, coaches, managers, media members and 37,055 customers who someday would be able to tell their grandkids they witnessed Puig's magical Major League debut.
"You're looking at each other going, 'Wow; did that really happen?'" said Dodgers coach Davey Lopes, who has seen it all.
For those old enough to have seen Roberto Clemente play, Puig's catch and throw evoked images of the great one at his best. The fact that a manchild from Cuba, 22 years old, had done it in his first game in "The Show" seemed surreal.
When he was asked in the afterglow if he was aware of Clemente, Puig nodded and said, in Spanish, "I know him. I've seen video. He made great throws. I can do that."
It seemed almost incidental that Puig had lashed a single in his first big league at-bat against Eric Stults and singled again, to the opposite field, in his third trip to the plate. He was 2-for-4, but what came shining through was the visual of a game-ending defensive play taking its place with the most sensational of the season.
Few debuts in the game's history have been so singularly spectacular.
"Really, with all the hype, it's just amazing it ends like that," Mattingly said, unable to disguise his amazement. "Does it surprise me? How can you not be surprised by that ending? You've seen games end like that, but not by a kid who's been hyped like him.
"This is Hollywood."
The Dodgers, grinding their gears for two months, moved to 24-32 with that victory. They became a different team that night, energized, a team that -- with the introduction of Hanley Ramirez's booming bat in conjunction with Puig -- would explode, blowing away the National League West with a historic 42-8 run.
In a suddenly raucous clubhouse, Puig talked in his deep baritone -- a voice that now fills the room -- about the throw, the emotions, the elation of winning his first Major League game in such remarkable fashion.
As Puig walked away from the cameras and crowd toward his corner locker, your correspondent approached him with one last question, in his native tongue. What could he possibly do for an encore?
Puig's response came in English, through a wide smile: "More."
He wasn't kidding.
One night later, Puig rocked the house. First at-bat, bottom of the first, he rocketed a double down the right-field line. After gounding out next time up, Puig unloaded a three-run homer to center field in the fifth inning against Clayton Richard, tying the game at 5.
The Padres rallied to draw even, and after Luis Cruz's RBI returned the lead to the Dodgers, Puig went the other way again in the sixth, hammering a two-run homer to right to set up a 9-7 victory.
An opening act for the ages would lead to a month for the record books. Puig finished June 2013 hitting .436 with seven homers and 16 RBIs. He won the NL Rookie of the Month Award for June, his first month in the game.
The story was only beginning to unfold. There would follow a late-season slump, convincing critics that pitchers had found Puig's holes and were exposing him. Purists harped about his showtime actions -- the bat flips and emotional displays -- and raved on about how his lack of respect for conventional behavior would be his undoing.
The questions remained through the offseason and on into Puig's sophomore year. But when May 2014 turned out to be very much like June 2013, only better, the skeptics fell silent.
"He's not swinging at balls anymore," Mattingly said. "He's making them throw strikes, and he's been unbelievable. It's hard to imagine how good he can be if he keeps developing like this."
Mattingly saw Bo Jackson in Puig when he arrived, but the Dodgers' skipper now sees Mike Trout -- the same powerful frame and blazing speed, the unabashed love of the game -- in his right fielder.
"At the beginning of the year, I heard somebody on TV -- I won't mention his name -- say, 'Once they figure him out, he's not going to be a problem,'" Lopes said. "Well, he's a problem."
Mattingly sees Puig as a potential leader of the highest order, as a player who wants to command the respect of a Derek Jeter and can be remembered with the greats. Lopes has watched the Cuban thunderbolt mature off the field and on, picking up English quickly even if he's not yet comfortable expressing himself in a second language.
"He's polishing his skills at a very rapid pace," Lopes said. "His aptitude, his ability to learn is as good as I've seen. I've never seen a guy develop so quickly in one year. He's night and day.
"Puig is a monster, a beast -- in a good way."
And it all started one year ago today, in a debut unlike any other.
Lyle Spencer is a columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.