After one game, Puig drawing lofty comparisons
Dodgers phenom debuts with two hits, jaw-dropping throw
LOS ANGELES -- Kevin Kennedy, a Major League manager for four seasons and baseball lifer, had a one-word response to the way Yasiel Puig ended his first big league game on Monday night with a 260-foot strike that became a double play and a 2-1 Dodgers victory at the expense of the stunned Padres.
"Clemente," Kennedy said from the Dodger Stadium press box as home-plate umpire Mark Wegner made the out call at first on Chris Denorfia. Puig had run down Kyle Blanks drive on the warning track, taken one step and unleashed a perfect throw to Adrian Gonzalez at first base.
Roberto Clemente requires no introduction to anybody, including Puig. He was born and raised in Cuba before embarking on this new life armed with a seven-year, $42 million contract courtesy of the Dodgers 12 months ago.
"I know him," Puig said when asked about Clemente. "I've seen video. He made great throws. I can do that."
Yes, he can. The master right fielder would have applauded the play by Puig that ended a Major League debut every bit as sensational as a seasoned scriptwriter could conceive.
"Really, with all the hype, it's just amazing it ends like that," Dodgers manager Don Mattingly said. "Does it surprise me? How can you not be surprised by that ending? You've seen games end like that, but not by a kid who's been hyped like him.
"This is Hollywood."
Puig's magnificent throw was made possible by an old-school fake at second base by Luis Cruz and Nick Punto. The Dodgers' middle infielders made phantom tosses toward each other as Denorfia -- off with Brandon League's pitch -- hustled toward second and Puig retreated for Blanks' deep drive.
"We were both doing the flipping [motion] at the same time," Cruz said, grinning. "He slid headfirst. Then he had to get up and get back."
When Gonzalez peeked and saw that Denorfia was detained, he figured Puig had a shot at the double play.
"He was coming across [the warning track]," Gonzalez said, "and it was just a quick set and [throw]. We all know he's got a great arm; we saw that in the spring. That was a great play. It started with Nick and Cruzy giving him a chance."
There was a momentary delay before the out call was made by Wegner. It seemed the four umpires could not believe what they'd just seen.
"It just happened that the right fielder has a strong arm and made a very accurate throw," Padres manager Bud Black said. "You don't see that play very often.
"Deno reacted well, hustled back. I think the play was made by the strength of the arm and the accuracy of the throw."
Puig has four other prime-time tools to go with the cannon.
Normally a middle-of-the-order hitter, Puig was dropped into Carl Crawford's vacated leadoff spot with the left fielder joining Matt Kemp and A.J. Ellis on the disabled list.
Puig singled on a 2-2 changeup in his first at-bat against Eric Stults, a crafty southpaw. He was erased when Punto hit into a double play, but there was a new energy in the grand old ballpark, and it reached Gonzalez.
The first baseman launched his most impressive of eight home runs this season, a bomb deep into the right-field bullpen, to hand a lead over to emergency starter Stephen Fife. Scott Van Slyke led off the second with another solo homer, his fifth.
A team that had been dragging suddenly seemed inspired.
"It's hard for you not to feel that energy," Mattingly said when asked about Puig's impact. "It's so powerful. The crowd got excited when he grounded out to third."
That was Puig's second at-bat. After his second hit, the other way, with one out in the sixth, he made a wide turn before slamming on his brakes. This guy plays the game on the edge, exactly what Mattingly has been pining for all season.
When Punto drove a single to right center, Puig didn't get a good read, pausing near second. But his blazing speed carried him into third, where he was stranded on Gonzalez's double-play ball.
Puig, 22, was leading the Southern League with a.599 slugging percentage when he was summoned from the Dodgers' Double-A Chattanooga affiliate. He had eight homers and 37 RBIs to go with 13 steals, producing a rare power/speed combination.
Mattingly looks at Puig's 6-foot-3, 215-pound running back frame and sees some Bo Jackson, some Mike Trout.
"He's just eager to get out on the field," Gonzalez said. "He loves the game. It's evident in his face. We were all trying to protect him from the media stuff. I just told him to be himself."
In the top half of the sixth, Puig had given a preview of the coming attraction. Alexi Amarista, a tiny blur of a player, raked a line drive into the right-field corner. Puig was there in a heartbeat, gloving the ball on the carom and gunning a bullet Amarista narrowly beat to second.
"A slower guy is out at second," Gonzalez observed.
When Chase Headley slammed a single to right, Puig unleashed another strike to the plate, but Amarista carried home the Padres' lone run on a night the Dodgers bullpen was rock solid -- with support from the kid in right.
And what, Puig was asked in Spanish in the afterglow of his astonishing debut, can he do for an encore?
"More," he said, beaming.
Lyle Spencer is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.