Even in a series that started with Jackie Robinson Day and Clayton Kershaw’s first start of 2019 on the same day, the conversation is dominated by that name. Forget that he’s immaterial to the Dodgers’ fortunes, given he plays for a team outside the NL West that’s almost certain to miss the playoffs. His return to Dodger Stadium stirs up a bevy of emotions amongst the Chavez Ravine faithful.
You don’t need me to prompt you on the reality that Puig’s legacy in blue is very, very complicated. Andy McCullough just broached the subject anew in a typically excellent piece for the Los Angeles Times, centering around his costly almost-play on Alex Bregman’s ground rule double in game two of the 2017 World Series. His first game back only added to it, showing up late to accept his 2018 NL champion ring before blasting a two-run shot off Clayton Kershaw.
My personal thoughts on Puig are no less all over the place. He’s special to me for galvanizing a cellar-dwelling team all the way to the playoffs when he came up in June 2013. I loved the passion he played with, and found a lot of the scrutiny he received to be unfair. (Looking at you, Bill Plaschke.) But he never did put all of his tools together the way he should have, and when he admitted he didn’t work hard the past two seasons (paired with the McCullough piece above), I moved on from him all the more readily.
A Moment in Time
There is one moment in Puig’s Dodger tenure, however, that everyone should be unified in appreciating unconditionally. It featured his typically exuberant persona, but only after he flexed his incredible talent when he absolutely needed to. I’m talking about his three-run home run in game seven of the 2018 NLCS, the highest point of five-and-a-half seasons of peaks and valleys.
— Dodgers Nation (@DodgersNation) October 21, 2018
The 2018 NLCS was, by every measure, a challenge for the Dodgers. In 2017, they breezed through the entire National League playoffs with nonchalant ease, as everyone who followed baseball that year expected. They came close to being the Best Team Ever, and when they dispatched the defending champion Chicago Cubs in five games, the only question was how they didn’t sweep them.
That, however, would not be the case in 2018. Granted, Los Angeles made quick work of the Braves in the NLDS, but that was probably inevitable given the disparity in postseason experience. The Brewers, on the other hand, boasted the best record in the NL that season, a seemingly untouchable bullpen that could win a game from the first inning on, and the league MVP in Christian Yelich. If the Dodgers wanted another trip to the World Series, they would have to battle for it.
The first six games were fittingly see-saw, hinging on a variety of key moments. Yasmani Grandal’s avalanche of miscues, Justin Turner’s eighth-inning home run, Cody Bellinger’s swan dive, Manny Machado and Jesus Aguilar’s first-base tussle, Bellinger’s walk-off 13th-inning single aided by uncharacteristic Machado hustle, Kershaw’s game five gem, the Brewers teeing off on Ryu in game six…and these are just the ones that come to mind the quickest.
It came down to game seven at Miller Park in Milwaukee, as it should have. The Brewers struck first when Yelich, strangely ineffective the first six games, parked a Walker Buehler pitch over the right field wall for a 1-0 Milwaukee lead in the first. The lead was short-lived, as Cody Bellinger sent a no-doubter into orbit the next inning to put L.A. ahead 2-1. The Brewers predictably went to their relief ace Josh Hader, ensuring the game would remain close for a few more innings.
In the top of the sixth, still leading 2-1, the Dodgers sought to put the game out of reach. Max Muncy commenced the action with a leadoff single, chasing reliever Xavier Cedeno in favor of Jeremy Jeffress. Justin Turner greeted Jeffress with a single, but Machado, the villain of the series, popped up after him for the first out.
Up next was Bellinger, who tapped the ball to second for what was sure to be an inning-ending double play. But true to the incredible athleticism he displayed all series long, he hustled enough to beat out the throw. It was now runners on first and third with two outs, and Yasiel Puig at the plate.
Jeffress set, and fired a 95 MPH heater that Puig missed easily. Next up was a ball low and away, on which Bellinger easily took second. John Smoltz noted how it felt like a ninth inning for Jeffress, given the urgency for each Brewers reliever in the game. After that, a slider. But it didn’t slide quite enough. It hung over the plate. Puig socked it, dropped his bat, and marched out of the batter’s box.
Joe Buck’s voice began to rise (at least somewhat): “In the air to left-center field, this ball is in the gap and…”
But it wasn’t in the gap. It cleared the centerfield wall, taking an almost hesitant bounce as if to create one last moment of suspense over whether or not it was…
“…over the wall for a three-run home run.”
The usually boisterous Milwaukee crowd fell deathly silent. Puig, likely throwing shade at Aguilar, pounded his crotch exuberantly as he flew around the bases. His teammates eagerly awaited him at the dugout as he stuck his tongue out, high-fived and pounded his chest relentlessly.
From thereon, the game progressed with a level of inevitability that almost felt like it was predetermined. Milwaukee’s bats were quietly dispatched by Ryan Madson and Kenley Jansen, setting up Clayton Kershaw to lock down the ninth inning and secure the team’s second consecutive pennant. While the Dodgers had the arms necessary to eke out a 2-1 win, there’s no doubt that Puig’s resounding shot made their work far easier.
Just about everything Yasiel Puig did in a Dodgers uniform seems subject to back-and-forth scrutiny and debate. His work ethic or lack thereof, his temper, his bat-flips, and so on. But there can be no debate that his clutch home run in the NLCS sealed a National League pennant was his finest moment with the team. It was the signature postseason moment from him I had dreamed of since he debuted five years prior, and it was worth the wait.
As for his shoulda-been winning HR in the World Series…that’s a story for another time.
[button link=”https://www.dodgersnation.com/the-dodgers-legacy-of-yasiel-puig-examined/2019/04/15/” type=”big” color=”red”] The Dodgers Legacy of Yasiel Puig, Examined[/button]