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Yasiel Puig making believers out of L.A. Dodger faithful

Published: Sunday, Aug. 30 2015 8:29 a.m. MDT

Los Angeles Dodgers' Yasiel Puig gets ready to bat during the first inning of their baseball game against the Atlanta Braves, Saturday, June 8, 2013, in Los Angeles. (Mark J. Terrill, AP) Los Angeles Dodgers' Yasiel Puig gets ready to bat during the first inning of their baseball game against the Atlanta Braves, Saturday, June 8, 2013, in Los Angeles. (Mark J. Terrill, AP)

When the Los Angeles Dodgers took to the field in spring training, they knew they had a promising young prospect in Yasiel Puig. What they didn’t know was that by the close of preseason, Puig would be leading their club in nearly every single offensive category.

Puig put on a display for the fans in Dodgertown that he was a hustling five-tool player in the mold of 2012 Rookies of the Year Mike Trout and Bryce Harper that only comes to an organization once in a Dodger blue moon.

Sticking to their guns, however, and not wanting to rush the 22-year-old Cuban defector into the bright lights of the show, the blue suits sent Puig to their double-A affiliate in Chattanooga, Tenn., just before the beginning of the 2013 campaign.

And who could question the Dodgers on this? The parent club’s outfield lineup was projected as one of the best in Major League Baseball. Anchored by superstar Matt Kemp in center field, Los Angeles had Carl Crawford in left and Andre Ethier in right.

Los Angeles Dodgers' Yasiel Puig points skyward after hitting a single during the first inning of their baseball game against the Atlanta Braves, Sunday, June 9, 2013, in Los Angeles. (Mark J. Terrill, ASSOCIATED PRESS) Los Angeles Dodgers' Yasiel Puig points skyward after hitting a single during the first inning of their baseball game against the Atlanta Braves, Sunday, June 9, 2013, in Los Angeles. (Mark J. Terrill, ASSOCIATED PRESS)

All three had tasted the plateau of All-Star greatness and were going into the season healthy. The best place for Puig to get his at-bats and experience was in the minor leagues — not on the bench of the Dodger dugout waiting for a pinch-hit or spot start here and there.

Fast-forward to the beginning of June. The Los Angeles Dodgers were buried in last place in the NL West, arguably the weakest division in pro baseball.

Dodgers manager Don Mattingly, despite being loved by almost everyone as an all-around good chum, had his fanny on the griddle. To make matters worse, Kemp and Crawford had been put on the disabled list and Ethier was starting to creak around a bit himself.

Needless to say, the blue crew was in trouble and in need of a serious shot of adrenalin. Not only did the Dodgers need some offensive production but also some hope. The season was on the verge of a total disaster, and the baseball mecca known as Dodger Stadium was about to go empty.

Los Angeles Dodgers' Yasiel Puig, right, hugs Matt Kemp prior to their baseball game against the Atlanta Braves, Sunday, June 9, 2013, in Los Angeles. (Mark J. Terrill, AP) Los Angeles Dodgers' Yasiel Puig, right, hugs Matt Kemp prior to their baseball game against the Atlanta Braves, Sunday, June 9, 2013, in Los Angeles. (Mark J. Terrill, AP)

This is what sports is made of. When it appears there is no hope at all, one must reach for a star and believe the unbelievable. For the Dodgers’ front office, it was only a phone call to Tennessee.

On Monday, June 3, Puig arrived in Chavez Ravine to fanfare and promise, bringing with him his .313 batting average, eight home runs and 37 runs batted in.

Those were numbers higher than every one of the big league players on the Dodgers’ roster.

But those were minor league statistics, and no way would he be able to continue that production once major league pitching got ahold of him.

In his first game, Puig went two for four at the plate. That’s a good night by any standard for a major league hitter, but judging from the home crowd’s reaction you would have thought it was the World Series and Puig was leading the team in a deciding seventh game.

Los Angeles Dodgers' Yasiel Puig flies out to right during the second inning of their baseball game against the Atlanta Braves, Sunday, June 9, 2013, in Los Angeles. (Mark J. Terrill, AP) Los Angeles Dodgers' Yasiel Puig flies out to right during the second inning of their baseball game against the Atlanta Braves, Sunday, June 9, 2013, in Los Angeles. (Mark J. Terrill, AP)

Despite the two hits he produced, it was how the game ended that ignited the real excitement. With the visiting San Diego Padres attempting to mount a ninth inning comeback, Puig caught a deep fly ball traveling back to the right field corner wall.

Without hesitation, he turned and fired a strike to first baseman Adrian Gonzalez, who administered the tag on the Padres’ base runner who had traveled a little far from the bag. It was the final out of the game and the Dodgers had won.

Puig obviously didn’t want to let the L.A. crowd think he was a one-game wonder, so he hit two home runs and knocked in five while collecting 10 total bases in his follow-up performance.

After a disappointing finale to the series that saw Puig go hitless, he thought a game-winning grand slam was in order the next game against the visiting Atlanta Braves, one of the best teams in the NL.

Los Angeles Dodgers' Yasiel Puig hits a single during the ninth inning of their baseball game agains the Atlanta Braves, Sunday, June 9, 2013, in Los Angeles. (Mark J. Terrill, AP) Los Angeles Dodgers' Yasiel Puig hits a single during the ninth inning of their baseball game agains the Atlanta Braves, Sunday, June 9, 2013, in Los Angeles. (Mark J. Terrill, AP)

In less than a week, the young Cuban who has seemingly come out of nowhere had hit for the home run cycle — a solo shot, a two-run homer, a three-run home run and a grand slam. On top of that he was playing flawless defense, daring runners to advance on him as he hauled in fly balls from his right-field post.

This is reminiscent of how the Los Angeles Angels brought in Mike Trout and the Washington Nationals called up Bryce Harper just a little over a year ago. Both the Halos and the Nats knew they had future superstars but felt they had to bring their guys along slowly, as if they might get a scabbed knee or something.

Trout immediately turned the Angels’ season around, and he inspired future Hall of Fame first baseman Albert Pujols to shake off his worse slump in his career and begin hitting in Anaheim.

Los Angeles Dodgers' Yasiel Puig hits a single during the ninth inning of their baseball game agains the Atlanta Braves, Sunday, June 9, 2013, in Los Angeles. (Mark J. Terrill, AP) Los Angeles Dodgers' Yasiel Puig hits a single during the ninth inning of their baseball game agains the Atlanta Braves, Sunday, June 9, 2013, in Los Angeles. (Mark J. Terrill, AP)

Harper had the same effect on the Nationals. He came in as if playing for his life — hitting, running and throwing. It was infectious. His teammates responded and all of Major League Baseball and its fans responded.

Now it is Puig’s turn. His pleasing smile during autograph sessions to his unafraid bat-twirling demeanor has the blue crew faithful at his feet. Without burdening him with such an arduous task, it’s looking as though he is here to save the Dodgers.

Kenny Bristow is the staff sports writer for the Wasatch Wave and contributes to the Deseret News high school coverage for the Wasatch region. Email: kennywbristow@gmail.com. To contribute to DNews preps for your area, inquire at 801.237.2143.

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