Dodgers hoping Puig can break out against Cardinals

Mattingly wants outfielder to keep it simple, not let St. Louis get in his head

Dodgers hoping Puig can break out against Cardinals

ST. LOUIS -- Asked how an opponent should best deal with Dodgers outfielder Yasiel Puig, one scout said, "Get into his head."

The Cardinals seem to have the same game plan in the best-of-five National League Division Series that resumes Monday with the teams tied at one win apiece.

The Dodgers' must-see outfielder already has had two dustups with the Cardinals involving catcher Yadier Molina. That has been followed by strikeouts in Puig's last five at-bats.

  Date   Matchup Highlights
Gm 1 Oct. 3   STL 10, LAD 9 video
Gm 2 Oct. 4   LAD 3, STL 2 video
Gm 3 Oct. 6   STL 3, LAD 1 video
Gm 4 Oct. 7   STL 3, LAD 2 video

It's easy to connect the dots with Puig, who plays with unbridled emotion and flair to the delight of fans. But opponents get irritated with his antics and the Cardinals seem intent on irritating Puig right back. Irritated players can lose their cool and make big mistakes. The Dodgers can see where this is going.

In this series, Puig has been hit by one Adam Wainwright pitch and backed off the plate by Lance Lynn. In July, Puig was hit by a pitch from then-Cardinals starter Joe Kelly.

It's no coincidence that Puig has led the Dodgers in hit-by-pitches in each of the last two seasons, quite an achievement last year when he played in only 104 games. The 12 plunkings this year are twice as many as any other Dodger. He might as well wear a bull's-eye on his jersey instead of No. 66.

Don Mattingly has said you take the bad with the good from Puig and the extremes can be dizzying. The manager performs a daily juggling act between the immense talent and youthful mistakes of the Wild Horse, as Hall of Fame announcer Vin Scully dubbed Puig.

Emotion makes Puig special, often in a great way.

And sometimes not so much.

"A day off like today is the time we all talk to Yasiel, tell him to take a step back, think about what has happened, that they're doing this to get to you," Mattingly said.

"This is where you want to simplify it," he added. "Just play baseball, get a good pitch to hit, hit it hard. When we talk about preparation, we are asking to be prepared for the big moment, to program it in your mind. The mind is a computer and you program it. You're ready to handle the noise here [at Busch Stadium], you're ready for the big moment, to hit the right pitch, throw to the right base, play the scoreboard, all because you've prepared mentally.

"Last year's [playoff experience] should help him, the All-Star Game, too. Those are emotional times, but it's still baseball. Bring it back to the simple things."

What the Dodgers have seen from Puig in his last five at-bats is concerning. Although he was a starting outfielder for the NL All-Star team and the NL Player of the Month for May, in truth, Puig's season has been as topsy-turvy as his life.

Puig hit only two home runs over the months of June, July and August combined. In August alone, he batted .216 with a .544 OPS and drove in four runs, only one more than he drove in in June. He awoke somewhat around the time the Dodgers pulled into San Francisco for a crucial mid-September series.

But the trend was established in his rookie season, when he hit the skids for several weeks in September. Rushed through the Minor Leagues after defecting from Cuba, Puig never really learned the art of adjusting quickly to prevent short slumps from turning into long slumps.

What makes Puig so unique, though, is that even when his bat has cooled, his defense is a joy to behold, even if during excitable moments he'll miss a cutoff man to show off that bazooka arm, not realizing his pitchers are going berserk as opponents take extra bases.

It's all part of the Puig package, and if it didn't mean more wins than losses, Mattingly wouldn't have installed Puig as the starting center fielder in late July as the centerpiece of a set outfield flanked by Matt Kemp and Carl Crawford, with Andre Ethier on the bench.

Again, it's no coincidence that the Dodgers jelled around that time. When Puig's bat really cooled this summer, Mattingly dropped him from second in the batting order to sixth and seventh, but Mattingly said he's not thinking about that now.

Ken Gurnick is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.