NEW YORK – Yasiel Puig knew the question was coming.
What about that rocket throw to third base Tuesday night? The one you made when the inning was already over?
Before it was even translated into Spanish for him, the Los Angeles Dodgers slugger broke into the sheepish grin of a forgetful schoolboy who keeps getting sent to the principal’s office for the same silly offense.
And he was ready with a playful response: Blame it on teammate Juan Uribe.
See, only a few days before, Uribe and third base coach Lorenzo Bundy, who doubles as a translator for Puig, were marveling out loud about how the young right fielder hadn’t goofed in more than a week.
Turns out, they jinxed him! At least that’s the way Puig tells it.
“So when he made the mistake last night,” Bundy said Wednesday, “Juan came off the field, he was looking for me and he goes, ‘Lorenzo, he’s back! He’s back!’ ”
The Dodgers are accustomed to those sort of untamed miscues from Puig – over-exuberant baserunning, wild throws from the outfield, huge hacks at the plate.
They laughed off his latest gaffe against the New York Mets because it was harmless: Puig caught a routine fly for the third out and immediately whipped a laser beam across the diamond to hold an opposing runner who was only headed back to the bench.
Puig got razzed in the dugout, for sure. He may have forgotten how many outs there were, but he’s been right on point at the plate.
Through Wednesday, the second-year star from Cuba has hit safely in 18 of his last 19 games, batting .408 with seven homers and 23 RBIs during that stretch. He’s all over the National League leaderboard, ranking second in RBIs (37) and slugging percentage (.610), fourth in on-base percentage (.427) and fifth in home runs (10).
Puig credits Uribe and fellow teammate Adrian Gonzalez, among others, with helping him polish his game. He’s laying off bad pitches and having more disciplined at-bats. He’s hitting the cutoff man and eliminating fundamental mistakes on the bases.
“I just think he’s making adjustments,” Dodgers manager Don Mattingly said. “Really his whole game has just matured, so I think that maturity has really been the key for him.”
All without losing the unique effervescence that’s already made him a fan favorite around the majors.
“Guys that love to play, you can just see it. And I think that’s what people love about Yasiel,” Mattingly said. “You get that Little League quality that’s just lovin’ playing baseball. And I think that’s what people really like seeing. A guy that plays hard with that energy, and then the talent.”
The 23-year-old Puig is a rare talent, indeed. That quickly became clear when he burst into the majors with a bang last June. But he’s also riled opponents with his antics on the field.
Some don’t like the way he flips his bat when he connects.
Giants pitcher Madison Bumgarner took exception to that this season and barked at Puig after he rounded third.
“It’s his style. It’s been a way that he’s played baseball for a long time,” Bundy said, translating for Puig. “He doesn’t really worry about the other team or what other players think about him – other than his team, our team.
“He says he tries to play the game hard, he tries to play the game happy. He wants to have a good time when he’s playing. He said this is a game of entertainment. He doesn’t really play it to offend people, but he does have a good time playing the game of baseball. But he doesn’t really worry about the opinions of other teams.”
Details of Puig’s dangerous escape from Cuba in June 2012 were revealed last month in a story first reported by Los Angeles Magazine. According to court documents in a federal lawsuit in Miami, smugglers who helped Puig leave his country on a speedboat have made death threats against him and a boxer who says he defected with Puig.
The outfielder signed a $42 million, seven-year contract with the Dodgers, a record for a Cuban defector. And in his first visit to Citi Field this week, Puig has put on quite a show.
He got three hits and reached base five times in Tuesday’s series-opening victory over the Mets. He and Hanley Ramirez hit back-to-back homers in a 4-3 win Wednesday night.
Asked if he’d had a chance to do any sightseeing in New York, Puig said he planned to get to the Statue of Liberty on Thursday and maybe the Empire State Building.
Wearing a white T-shirt with “PUIG” written in big red, white and blue letters, he said he’s still not used to all the attention and he misses his friends and former teammates in Cuba.
“I don’t think he’s in awe of being in the major leagues now. He feels like he belongs and he’s done the things that he needs to do,” Bundy said, again translating for Puig. “When you face major league pitching, it’s never easy, and you have to make the adjustments and that’s what he’s trying to do.”