LOS ANGELES — Yasiel Puig was somewhere between home plate and first base, his arms raised triumphantly, his bat still airborne following a stratospheric flip, when it suddenly dawned on him the ball was not, in fact, going to make it over the wall. So he put his arms down, went into a breakneck sprint, and only as he pulled into third base standing up did he resume his wild celebration. The crowd went bonkers. It was amazing. It was absurd.
The National League Championship Series was nearly 26 innings old by that point, but in some ways the series truly began – as a competitive, long-term venture – at the moment Puig, the Los Angeles Dodgers’ mesmerizing rookie right fielder, unveiled what was surely the most outrageous, most athletic, most pimped-out triple the baseball postseason has ever witnessed.
It was the most life the battered Dodgers had shown in days, and it immediately energized a sellout crowd of 53,940 at Dodger Stadium. Five innings later, the Dodgers put the finishing touches on a 3-0 victory over the St. Louis Cardinals in Game 3, and the NLCS suddenly looked far different than it had three hours earlier.
“The great thing about the game of baseball [is] that you can talk about, ‘This is what should happen,’ but it never does play out that way,” Dodgers first baseman Adrian Gonzalez said. “That’s why, to me, predictions are just opinions. You’ve got to play it out on the field.”
The Cardinals still lead the series, two games to one, with Game 4 set for Tuesday evening. But after the Dodgers beat Cardinals ace Adam Wainwright on Monday night, the series, and with it the NL pennant and a berth in the World Series, is very much up for grabs.
And for all the talk of the Dodgers’ woes, it is the Cardinals now who look like an unholy mess, lugging around a .134 team batting average and a .190 slugging percentage in the series and showing an alarming lack of fundamentals in the Game 3 loss.
“It wasn’t very characteristic of how we played all season,” Cardinals Manager Mike Matheny said. “We’re a better club than this.”
Monday night should have been a reprieve for the Cardinals, after facing — and surviving — Zack Greinke and Clayton Kershaw in Games 1 and 2, but Dodgers lefty Hyun-Jin Ryu stifled them for seven scoreless innings, allowing only three hits and a walk and making the pair of runs the Dodgers scored in the fourth inning hold up.
Before the fourth, the Dodgers had hit only one ball out of the infield, a bloop single to shallow right-center by Hanley Ramirez, who was playing with a fractured rib. They hadn’t scored since the third inning of Game 1, their string of scoreless innings growing to 22.
It was a Cardinals mistake that awakened the Dodgers’ bats. Mark Ellis opened the bottom of the fourth by driving a ball to deep right-center. Center fielder Jon Jay and right fielder Carlos Beltran converged on it, but neither called for it and the ball fell between them for a double — one of a number of makeable catches Jay, in particular, failed to make.
“I think he hesitated,” Beltran said of Jay. “On a play like that, as a center fielder — and I was a center fielder myself — you gotta take charge.”
Two batters later, Gonzalez lifted a soft line-drive double down the right field line for another double, scoring Ellis to give the Dodgers a 1-0 lead. And two batters after that, Puig — 0 for 11 with seven strikeouts in the series to that point — stepped into the batter’s box against Wainwright.
On a 2-1 sinker, Puig lashed a drive toward the right field corner. He flipped his bat. He raised his arms. It was high. It was deep. It was . . . off the wall. But only Puig, a freakish mixture of power and speed — like a Cuban Bo Jackson — could turn an aborted home run trot into a triple with the flip of a switch.
“He’s just playing with energy. He’s just playing with passion,” catcher A.J. Ellis said of Puig. “Yeah, he pimped it a little bit, but then he took off and got a triple. He’s good for the game, good for baseball.”
The Cardinals, so fundamentally sound all postseason, suddenly couldn’t get out of their own way Monday. In the top of the fifth, Daniel Descalso, who had entered as a pinch runner after David Freese strained a calf muscle, misjudged a flyball to left and was doubled off second base, squandering the Cardinals’ biggest threat.
“I just misread it,” Descalso said. “We made a few mistakes tonight we don’t usually make. When you do that, you usually lose.”
Asked about the mistakes behind him, Wainwright said, “All I know is, there were some pitches I could have made in front of them that I didn’t make.”
The Cardinals’ final mental error cost them a critical insurance run, when second baseman Kolten Wong inexplicably threw to second after chasing down Ramirez’s bloop single in shallow right. It allowed Carl Crawford, who was on second base, to score on a bang-bang play at the plate to make it 3-0.
All that was left was three quick outs from closer Kenley Jansen for the save. Finally, three games in, the NLCS had seen both a Puig sighting and a victory for the Dodgers, two things that were hardly unrelated.