SAN DIEGO - Yasel Puig steps to the plate, first inning, and this is the first time I have seen him live and in living color. The sun is still pretty high in the sky, and it is warm, and people have not yet settled into their seats. There really isn’t much buzz yet in the stadium for baseball’s latest phenom. People are still getting their beers.
Puig punches the ground with his fist then he walks up to the plate — a habit, I suppose — and gently brushes his cleats over the dirt. He tugs at his Dodger blue jersey, which already looks classical on him. He steps into the box against San Diego’s Jason Marquis, who is 34 years old and has been pitching in the Major Leagues for a long, long time.
On the scoreboard, Puig’s batting average lights up at .474.
Puig takes a practice swing, then rocks the bat very slowly back and forth behind his head. Then the bat faces skyward, and it is perfectly still, uncomfortably still, and Puig is still too. This seems to be the only way to get Yasel Puig to stand still. Outside the box, he is crackling energy, he’s sprinting to first on routine ground balls, he’s bouncing in the outfield in warm-ups between innings, he’s pacing the dugout like a lion in his cage. Now, though, he is transfixed, his eyes locked on Marquis, his bat pointing at the clouds, his body motionless as if frozen in carbonite.
He escaped from Cuba almost exactly one year ago; apparently he had tried to escape before. Puig had been a thrilling young player in Cuba for a year, but he did not play in 2012. Some say that his failed escape was the reason. Others say he was being disciplined for various acts of immaturity. Nobody seems to know for sure. His time in Cuba is mysterious.
What is known is that he held a tryout in Mexico a year ago, and the Dodgers’ vice president of amateur scouting Logan White was so blown away by what he saw — so utterly blown away by his speed and raw power and arm and seemingly limitless energy — that he pushed and argued and cajoled, and the Dodgers found $42 million to sign him. That was more than other Cuban stars like Yoenis Cespedes or Jorge Soler. Some were shocked by the expense. Others thought the Dodgers just got baseball’s next great player.
In less than three weeks with the Los Angeles Dodgers, he has looked like the next great player. He has flashed, well, just about everything — two hits in his first game, two homers in his second, bazooka arm in right field, two stolen bases without being caught, a homer at Yankee Stadium, a batting average that has never dropped below .400 — and when he hit his first grand slam, Dodgers’ legendary announcer Vin Scully fell silent on television.
“I have learned over the years,” Scully said, “that there comes a rare and precious moment when there is nothing better than silence.”
Puig steps in Friday night against Jason Marquis, who has been around, who has pitched in a World Series, who is on his eighth team, who was selected to an All-Star Game once and who also gave up Sammy Sosa’s 600th homer. There is no buzz, no sense that anything amazing is about to happen. Marquis throws his first pitch, a sinking fastball that, as they say, doesn’t sink. Puig lifts his left leg, steps it down, a somewhat subtle move, one that does not introduce the vicious and powerful swing that follows. That swing is shocking in its swiftness, its fury, and its power — it seems to happen too fast for the mind to catch up, like the first punch in a fight.
“The first pitch is swung on,” Scully says. “A long fly ball to deep right-center field. Would you believe he has hit a home run? On the first pitch?” And again, as Puig rounds second and heads for third, for a couple of seconds, Scully falls silent.
“He is not to be believed,” Scully says when he regains his voice, “because the game is not that easy.”
* * *
Oh, yes, there’s one other thing, but an important thing: The Dodgers will lose the game to the Padres 6-3. They will fall deeper into last place.
* * *
I have never been so baffled by a baseball team as I am by these Los Angeles Dodgers. Yes, there have been injuries. Yes, there have been some bad breaks. Yes, there have been a few subpar performances.
— In the starting rotation, the Dodgers have two former Cy Young Winners (Clayton Kershaw and Zack Greinke), neither one yet 30. They have a rookie pitcher from South Korea (Hyun-jin Ryu) who has mostly befuddled hitters, and a fourth starter (Josh Beckett) who once finished second in the Cy Young balloting and was a World Series MVP. They had an All-Star starter (Chad Billingsley) who had season-ending surgery too.
— In the bullpen, they have a one-time All-Star closer (Brandon League) and overpowering setup man who averages more than 14 strikeouts per nine innings (Kenley Jansen).
— In the starting lineup, when everyone is healthy, they have FIVE former All-Stars, a group that does not even include Yasel Puig, who in just three weeks has struck Vin Scully silent twice.
Now, you tell me: How in the heck is that team — with the highest payroll in the history of the National League — dead last in the National League West? Not just last, mind you, but dead last, 11 games under .500 when every other team in the division is at least break even?
* * *
Baseball is a bewildering game. In baseball, perhaps more than any other sport, two plus two does not necessarily equal four. The Boston Red Sox are a great example. In 2009, the Red Sox won 95 games and lost in the first round of the playoffs. So, they signed pitcher John Lackey, who had won 93 games in the previous seven years, and they signed superstar third baseman Adrian Beltre, and they signed shortstop Marco Scutaro coming off his best year. They were looking, once more, to bridge the gap between contender and champion.
Result: They were worse the next year and missed the playoffs.
Then they really went crazy — they traded for one of the best players in baseball, Adrian Gonzalez, and they signed the brilliant left-fielder Carl Crawford and they tried to shore up their bullpen with former All-Star closer Bobby Jenks.
Result: They missed the playoffs again, this time by collapsing in historic fashion and losing 16 of their last 21 games.
They fired manager Terry Francona. General manager Theo Epstein left. There was talk of redemption, talk of making things right, talk of the Red Sox extraordinary talent.
Result: The Red Sox utterly fell apart and had their worst season in almost 50 years.
And then what? They got rid of Gonzalez. They got rid of Crawford. They got rid of Josh Beckett. They slimmed down, retooled, went younger, rid themselves of some of the superstars they had pinned so many hopes on.
Result: The Red Sox are in first place.
Result: Those same superstars are now part of the Dodgers’ sinking ship.
* * *
Friday night, Adrian Gonzalez does something remarkable. In the seventh inning, with a runner on third, the Padres’ Will Venable lays down what appears to be an excellent squeeze bunt toward first. Gonzalez, charges, gloves the ball and in one impossibly graceful sweep, flips the ball out of his glove right to catcher A.J. Ellis, who gets down the tag for the out.
Gonzalez is a remarkable player — or can be on any given day. He has won three Gold Gloves for his defense. He has also hit as many as 40 home runs. This year, so far, he’s hitting .304 and he’s on pace to drive in 100 runs.
And yet … what does it mean? What does any of it mean? Gonzalez seems to be playing well. Clayton Kershaw, who has been the best pitcher in the National League, has a 1.84 ERA. Ryu, as mentioned, has been excellent. Carl Crawford is on the disabled list now, but he was hitting .300 and was on pace for about 100 runs scored. The brilliantly talented Hanley Ramirez, who looked to be on his way to the Hall of Fame before his career jumped the tracks, came off the disabled list and has been crushing the ball ever since.
But they lose. And they lose. And they lose.
Sure, there are obvious disappointments, like Matt Kemp, who just two years ago was making his case as the best player in baseball but has not been the same since shoulder surgery. And 2009 Cy Young winner Zack Greinke, who has been hurt and/or ineffective for the bulk of his time.
Still, it doesn’t seem to add up to a terrible baseball team. But, at the moment, anyway, the Dodgers ARE a terrible baseball team. They have had one three-game winning streak all season — and it stopped at three. They have been outscored by almost 50 runs already this year. They have losing records in close games and blowouts, at home and on the road and against each team in their division.
Part of it might come down to something that, not surprisingly, Oakland A’s general manager Billy Beane figured out earlier than most: Depth is the thing in baseball these days. It’s not about stars. The crosstown Angels prove that on a daily basis. The Dodgers, even when healthy, are top-heavy and bloated and expensive. They have all this supposed talent, but they have given 777 plate appearance to 30-somethings Nick Punto, Skip Schumacher, Mark Ellis, Juan Uribe and Jerry Hairston. They have given almost 200 innings to seven pitchers with ERAs above 4.50. Injuries or no, that’s no way to make a living.
Then you go a few hours North to Oakland, and you don’t see any superstars. Only Tampa Bay and Houston in the American League have lower payrolls. The A’s stadium is falling apart, nobody really knows where they belong, the team has not drawn 30,000 a game in more than two decades, and their cleanup hitters this year have been Cespedes, Josh Donaldson, Jed Lowrie, Brandon Moss and Seth Smith.
But the A’s have 10 different batters who have walked 20 or more times (the Dodgers have three). The A’s have eleven pitchers who are giving up fewer than a hit per inning (the Dodgers have seven).
And Oakland leads the American League West.
* * *
The buzzards have been swirling over manager Don Mattingly’s head for weeks now, and it’s a shame because just about everybody loves Mattingly. Everybody has loved him since he was the one guy on some bad Yankees teams worth watching, when he sported that thick mustache and scooped bad throws out of the dirt and dug deep into that left-handed crouch in the batter’s circle. “100 percent ballplayer, 0 percent bulls----“ Bill James memorably called him.
Now, as a manager, he finds himself with a job that is, more or less, 100 percent bulls---.
He’s still managing, though, this a month after 72 percent of the fans in a Los Angeles Times poll favored him getting canned. He has ripped his team’s softness and he has been suspended for his role in the colossal Dodgers-Diamondbacks brawl. He has watched Puig get off to the greatest start for any player since Joe DiMaggio. He has shuffled lineups and tried to cover weaknesses and tried to stay positive. People around the game seem to think his firing is inevitable … and will come at any time.
With that in mind, it is that positive vibe that amazes because everybody knows, deep down, that Don Mattingly has to look around this mess and just shake his head. All that talent. All that money. All that losing.
“I’m not the first manager to deal with this,” he told reporters. “And I’m not going to be the last.”
* * *
The second time Puig comes to the plate Friday night, he gets into his still stance and, on the second pitch, fouls it back. At that moment, something seems to click in the mind of Jason Marquis. He has pitched to a lot of batters through the years. He has learned a few things.
He throws Puig a slider that breaks well out of the strike zone. Puig flails at it and misses. Marquis has seen what he needs to see. He throws another slider that breaks even more out of the strike zone. Puig swings and misses for the third strike.
The third time Puig comes up, Marquis’ plan is set. Outside slider — swing and a miss. Outside slider – swing and a miss. Outside slider — Puig lays off as the ball goes in the dirt. Outside slider – swing and a miss and another strikeout.
The fourth time Puig comes up, he faces a different pitcher, Nick Vincent, and he takes a pitch that he thinks is inside but the umpire calls it a strike. Puig is visibly upset. He glares at the umpire for a couple of seconds. The next pitch, he swings wildly and grounds out feebly to second base.
The last time Puig comes up he is the last batter in a game the Dodgers are about to lose again. It will be their eighth loss in 11 games. Puig faces closer Huston Street. The last pitch of the game is a slider, and Puig swings and misses. The Padres celebrate as they move above .500 — this a team just about everyone was picking to finish last. The Dodgers fall another game back.
Vin Scully had it right all along. The game is not that easy.