LOS ANGELES -- Hank Aaron, who hit more home runs than any unenhanced man in baseball history, never understood the fascination with the big fly. "The triple is the most exciting play," he once said, conjuring images of a missile to the gap, a dash around second, a dust cloud at third. But the traditional triple, even in all its hat-flying leg-churning glory, is downright mundane when compared to a new classification of the most exciting play: the Yasiel Puig triple.
It starts with a deep drive, a flip of the bat and two arms in the air. It continues with the nauseating realization that the ball is not in fact clearing the fence, sparking a furious sprint that recalls Bo Jackson, and ends with more arm-waving, fist-pumping and hand-kissing. That's two separate celebrations for one hit. Don't try it at home, or on the local sandlot, because you might end up wearing a fastball in the ribs. Puig may be the only person west of Cuba who can pull it off. "I'm always having fun on the field," Puig said through an interpreter. "That's all it really is for me, having fun."
He was the catalyst for a team that occupied the basement of the National League West on June 22 and wound up winning the division by 11 games. His eighth-inning double in Game 4 of the Division Series set up the clinching home run by Juan Uribe. And his triple -- the most exciting play, authored by the most exciting player -- ignited a 3-0 win over the Cardinals and the usually untouchable Adam Wainwright. The Dodgers still trail in the NLCS, 2-1, but Puig rediscovered his swing and his strut Monday night. As long as he's alive, so are these Dodgers.
They had scuffled through 22 straight scoreless innings, and their Cuban phenomenon 11 fruitless at-bats, when they reached the bottom of the fourth at Dodger Stadium. Puig, a notorious hacker, was treating the NLCS like he was Rickey Henderson: guessing pitches, checking swings, debating calls. Not only was he 0 for 11, he had struck out seven times, muttering to himself in Spanish. As usual, critics complained that Puig could not control his emotions, but more to the point he had to let them go. He is most potent when his approach is most pure: see the ball, smash it to smithereens. "In St. Louis I was trying too hard," Puig said through his interpreter. "Coming here I focused on staying calm."
His demonstrations will earn many rebukes around baseball -- Dodgers manager Don Mattingly even acknowledged that Puig should have been running out of the box -- but it was an expression of relief more than conceit. With the world watching, Puig had to prove that he was more than a fad, more than a fluke. He tripled, singled, and the Dodgers broke the second longest postseason famine in club history. Mattingly called a team meeting after batting practice Monday and told players to relax, in hopes they wouldn't view a 2-0 deficit as apocalyptic. But the Dodgers are best when they're wound up. Last series, ace Clayton Kershaw begged for the ball on three day's rest for the first time in his career, and Monday afternoon shortstop Hanley Ramirez insisted on playing with a cracked rib.
Ramirez admitted that he could not sleep Sunday night and was pained by coughing, laughing, even breathing. He wore a black pad around his mid-section. But Ramirez, who was the most prolific player in the National League when healthy this season, still collected two hits and drove in the third Dodger run. With Ramirez in the lineup, outfielder Andre Ethier also inserted himself despite a sprained ankle, and starting pitcher Hyun-Jin Ryu rebounded from a dreadful Division Series appearance to toss seven shutout innings. The Cardinals lost with Wainwright, just as the Dodgers lost with Kershaw and Zack Greinke.
Focus now shifts from the Dodgers' offensive woes to the Cardinals', with their .134 batting average in the NLCS. In a series featuring about as much scoring as the World Cup, the margin for error is miniscule, and every mistake is magnified. Sometimes, the deciding factor is not even a miscue as much as an inability to convert an improbable play. Through the first two games in St. Louis, the Dodgers were the ones who didn't come through in the field, whether it was Ethier on a blast to center, Carl Crawford on a throw from left or A.J. Ellis on a passed ball. On Monday, it was the Cardinals, with Daniel Descalso running himself into a double play, Jon Jay and Carlos Beltran staring at each other on a fly to right center, and Jay letting a deep drive tick off his glove. The Cardinals, like the Dodgers, also came away an injury concern: third baseman and October sensation David Freese left with a sore calf.
Puig, though, still dominated the postgame discourse: Is he pompous or passionate, hot dog or alpha dog? And does it even matter? Wainwright said he did not see Puig's response to the triple. He seemed more irritated by Adrian Gonzalez, who doubled before Puig, and gesticulated wildly to the Dodger dugout. "Mickey Mouse stuff," Wainwright called it. When his jab was relayed to Gonzalez, the normally mild-mannered first baseman cracked a grin. "Mickey Mouse is only an hour away," he said, with Puig giggling next to him like Goofy. "So it fits us."