Friday, October 4, 2013

Braves Outfield Does The Puig

From the time he was called up from the minors on June 3, Dodgers outfielder Yasiel Puig has astounded observers with his Bo Jackson-esque physique and physical skill-set. The 22-year-old Cuban defector can pretty much do it all, a proverbial five-tool player, and all five tools are well above big-league average.

As gifted as Puig is, however, he also has displayed an alarming lack of fundamental polish, compounded by an exuberant playing style that at times causes him to try to do too much. He’s thrown out baserunners at third and home with his cannon arm, but he’s also overthrown cutoff men and given opponents extra bases. He’s gone from first to third effortlessly on routine grounders through the infield, but he’s also run into outs and run his team out of innings by taking dumb chances. He’s run down balls in the gaps with seemingly impossible diving catches, but he’s also run over teammates in the outfield, teammates much better positioned to make the catch and calling for the ball all the way. They've learned to get out of the way when they hear him coming, but that's hardly the solution.

The talk around the Dodgers most of the year was that while Puig didn’t cost them a single regular-season game with his boneheaded plays, things could be much different in the postseason, when the opposition is less forgiving and the games matter so much more.

One game into the postseason doesn’t provide much of a sample size, but it’s ironic that in Game 1 of the National League Division Series against Atlanta, Puig was a central figure in the Dodgers’ 6-1 victory while the Braves outfield committed numerous costly fundamental blunders. Puig had two hits and was hit by a pitch in five plate appearances, scored a run, and doubled a runner off first base on a fly ball to right field.

Meanwhile, Braves outfielders Evan Gattis and Justin Upton both turned singles into extra-base hits by diving after uncatchable balls. Both runners scored. Center fielder Jason Heyward overthrew the cutoff man twice on pointless throws to home plate, allowing runners to advance from first to second base. On both occasions, the runner who advanced into scoring position wound up scoring.

Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez attributed the leaky play of his team to being overamped, and that’s understandable. It was the first game of the postseason, the first postseason game for many of his players, and the less-than-sellout crowd (not selling out home playoff games is a longstanding Atlanta tradition) was loud and raucous, at least for the first few innings. Adrian Gonzalez hit a two-out, two-run homer in the top of the third, taking most of the starch out of the home crowd.

It was an inopportune time for the Braves to have a sloppy game. Dodgers lefthander Clayton Kershaw, arguably the best pitcher on the planet and a lead-pipe lock for the NL Cy Young Award, was simply outstanding. Kershaw lost his fastball command in the middle innings, and the Braves hitters, armed with a good game plan, made him work and had his pitch count up to 77 through four innings, to 91 through five.

Having a good game plan and executing it are two different things, however. Kershaw adjusted and went more to his curveball and slider, resulting in 12 strikeouts in seven innings. He fanned nine of the last 11 men he faced. He allowed just three hits and walked three, despite not being able to throw his fastball over the plate consistently. It was a ridiculously impressive performance.

No series is ever decided in one game, and this one is far from over. But the Braves have a tough hill to climb to get back into it. Zack Greinke, very nearly as good as Kershaw this season, is on the mound tonight for Los Angeles. This is not quite a win-or-go-home situation for Atlanta, but the Braves don’t want to go to LA down two games to none. Even if they recover from an 0-2 hole and force a deciding fifth game, Kershaw would be there waiting for them.

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