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The strange career arc of Yasiel Puig, postseason superstar

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Yasiel Puig is a focused, endlessly entertaining force of nature right now, and the Dodgers are thrilled.

MLB: NLCS-Chicago Cubs at Los Angeles Dodgers Richard Mackson-USA TODAY Sports

Last year, Yasiel Puig’s tongue wasn’t a thing. That was because Yasiel Puig wasn’t a thing. He wasn’t a baseball Gene Simmons yet, and that’s because he wasn’t even a baseball Gene Larkin. He was down in Triple-A, banished from baseball, a forgotten clap of thunder. He was not a part of the sport’s story when he was in the minors, and he wasn’t when he returned and went 4-for-19 (all singles, no RBI) in the postseason.

The headline in August of last year read:

The strange career arc of Yasiel Puig, Triple-A baseball player

And the sub-headline intimated that he would never play for the Dodgers again. This was not controversial. There were not Dodgers fans hopping up and down in my mentions, yelling at me for jumping for conclusions. The writing was on the wall, and it was mostly curse words. He was gone.

Instead, he’s very much here. Very much here.

MLB: NLCS-Chicago Cubs at Los Angeles Dodgers Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports

That was after a foul ball.

League Championship Series - Chicago Cubs v Los Angeles Dodgers - Game Two Photo by Harry How/Getty Images

That was after a slide in which he was not injured.

League Championship Series - Chicago Cubs v Los Angeles Dodgers - Game One Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

That was after a double.

Puig has emerged from the mad scientist’s laboratory, ripped the electrodes from his head, and is now Mecha Puig. He was already loud. Now he’s louder. The guy can’t take a pitch without flailing or doing something weird.

Think that’s hyperbole? Friend, Puig taking pitches has been one of the many highlights this postseason. This is an obvious one to appreciate because of the Ministry of Silly Walks vibe:

But even the most ordinary takes become something more. Look at Puig’s feet after this pitch:

The best way to explain it, I think, is that Puig is starring in his own movie. He’s shut out the outside world when he’s at the plate or on the field, and he’s imagining the spotlight is on him, and only him. Every pitch that is thrown to him becomes a possible scene, a potential clip that will make the trailer.

(If you like the idea of Yasiel Puig in his own movie, do I have the link for you.)

You might think this is a self-absorbed baseball player being absorbed with himself, and that’s partially true. There’s another word for it, though: Focus.

I was talking to the coaches and this is as good as we’ve seen him focus on every single pitch in the game

He’s focused. The feet shuffling, the bat-licking, the demonstrative wiggles, and histrionic reactions are all a part of what needs to happen if Puig is going to remind you of his spectacular talent. He needs to be in movie mode, where he goes up to the plate thinking that Morgan Freeman or Sam Elliot is narrating his life, wondering just what in the heck he’s going to do next. When he takes a pitch ...

FREEMAN: The ball was low, and Puig did a dance, stomping his feet on the ground, his way of urging the pitcher to bring that ball up.

When he hits a single ...

ELLIOT: Well, the baseball didn’t rightly go over the fence, but that don’t matter to a fella like Puig. He chucked his bat into the night and pretended like he that ball went over the fence. And when he came around to score that inning, it turns out he was right, in a way.

It doesn’t matter how he’s doing it. Not to the Dodgers. It just matters that he’s doing it. He’s 7-for-17 in the postseason, with two doubles, a triple, and a homer, and he’s patrolling right field with his usual fervor. The most impressive part, though, has been his discipline. Puig and discipline might seem like an oxymoronic combination, but his five walks (against just two strikeouts) have sparked as many rallies as his hits. Consider that he was the winning run in Game 2 because of this at-bat:

Brian Duensing is a left-hander, and southpaws have been Puig’s biggest problem this year, but if my Greater Cinematic Theory of Yasiel Puig’s Focus is accurate, he had to have come up to the plate thinking about hitting the home run himself. He knew what the crowd would sound like. He knew what the mob of teammates at home plate would feel like. He could already feel it, and if he was looking for something hard, he got it. It was a bad pitch to hit, but that didn’t used to stop him.

He restrained himself. And on the 3-0 count, if he was looking for a flat sinker up, he certainly got it. But it was a little too up. He might have popped it up instead of out.

It didn’t matter because he wasn’t going to swing.

In the screenplay in Puig’s head, the most important part isn’t that he gets to be the hero. The important part is that everyone else is scared of him. They’re scared of the bees in his pants, but they’re also scared of his frenzied focus, his ability to de-seam the baseball if it crosses through the strike zone and his ability to know the difference between pitches he can hit and pitches he can’t. This fear is why everything feels like a forgone conclusion to him. The other people are the ones who should be scared of failure, not Puig. When he succeeds, it’s just another plot point on the way to an inevitable conclusion.

It’s easy to forget that Puig is just a year older than Aaron Judge. Whereas the future AL Rookie of the Year feels like a fresh bucket of baseball nectar being dumped over our heads to invigorate us, Puig has been around forever. He’s been a phenom, an All-Star, a future MVP, a guy benched for showing up late, an Oklahoma City Dodger, a forgotten man, a fourth outfielder, someone with just 11 home runs in back-to-back seasons, a player who could be pitched to. That’s an exhausting number of different faces.

We have a new one now, and it’s made him just about the scariest player in that Dodgers dugout. The Diamondbacks didn’t have an answer for him. The Cubs don’t appear to. And while he’s tasting the sweet pine tar ticks on his bat and tipper-tapping with his feet, the world gets to watch and remember just how much of a presence Puig used to be. That guy is back now, and it’s a fair guess that the Dodgers are pretty OK with his timing.