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Yasiel Puig proves he’s no problem for the Dodgers

Yasiel Puig of the Los Angeles Dodgers licks

Yasiel Puig of the Los Angeles Dodgers licks his bat while batting in the third inning against the Chicago Cubs during game five of the National League Championship Series at Wrigley Field. Oct. 19, 2017. Credit: Getty Images / Jamie Squire

Yasiel Puig, the bat-licking, tongue-wagging, enraging, engaging blur of a Dodgers phenom, may never win over baseball’s puritanical establishment. To those perpetually locked in a turn-back-the-clock world, his antics may always overwhelm his talent.

Yet the Dodgers wouldn’t be playing in the World Series without Puig, the one-time problem child who stands at the center of a franchise’s hopes to win its first championship since 1988.

“Really this whole season, I think people have gotten through to him a little bit,” Dodgers ace Clayton Kershaw said. “I think he’s built up trust with some people. And you see it in the way he plays. I think that’s part of it, that he believes people have his best interest at heart.”

Puig’s tantrums nearly got him run out of town, but for the first time since 2014, his ability overshadowed his quirks in 2017. As the Dodgers raced to an MLB-high 104 wins, Puig set career highs in games (152), homers (28) and RBIs (74) and posted his highest OPS (.833) since his only All-Star season in 2014.

“I’m coming here and prepare more this year than any years here with the team,” Puig said recently. “My teammates helped me a lot this year. My manager and all the coaches, and that’s the reason I played better this year. I’m so proud of myself, and I want to keep going and do the best I can for my teammates and for myself.”

Thus far in the postseason, his teammates have seen the best version of Puig, who has done damage for the Dodgers. In eight playoff games, he’s hitting .414 (12-for-29). He’s notched four extra-base hits and walked six times, which has sent his OPS soaring to 1.169.

“His level of focus this postseason has been the best that I’ve ever seen it, and his determination,” Kershaw said. “When you combine that with the talent level that he has, it’s a really special player.”

Focus, of course, had been one of several issues that had damaged Puig’s reputation. It wasn’t long before the Dodgers realized that for Puig to have any chance to let his talent come through, it would require intervention. Andrew Friedman, the Dodgers’ president of baseball operations, described “a group, collective effort” to get through to him.

“A lot of it was just him not fully understanding what was expected,” Friedman said. “I’ve talked about this a lot. I think we take a lot for granted with players that come over from Cuba and have played professionally. It’s a different set-up, there’s different expectations. We think we can just say it and if they’re not listening, then they’re being insubordinate, whereas I don’t think he fully grasped ‘hey, be a good teammate.’ What does that mean exactly?”

That meaning took years to take shape, coming into focus only after manager Dave Roberts made a point of building a relationship.

“Doc’s been great,” Kershaw said. “I think Yasiel’s probably one of the main things that you’ve seen. I think Yasiel’s really responded to Doc as manager. Doc has really kind of taken him aside and really given him the attention that probably he needed at first to gain that trust, and he did a great job with that.”

Progress hasn’t come in a straight line. In June, Puig triggered a controversy when he made an obscene gesture to fans heckling him in Cleveland. In September, Roberts benched Puig for two games for not sliding into a bag and then for showing up late to a team activity.

But since the start of the playoffs, Puig’s manager and teammates have raved about a new level of focus.

“You just can’t flip a switch and now it’s the postseason and now it’s important,” Roberts said. “So it’s been a process for him, and the results are showing. But obviously when you have a talent like Yasiel, how he can impact the game defensively and in the batter’s box, it makes us considerably better.”

Puig, 26, burst on to the scene in 2013, posting a .925 OPS in 104 games. The next season, he made the All-Star team. His production declined in 2015 and 2016, and his shortcomings bubbled to the surface. His tardiness became chronic and his antics angered opponents.

With their patience wearing thin in July 2016, the Dodgers began exploring deals to trade away a player who had come to be defined as a problem child. And when nothing came together, they sent Puig an unmistakable message, demoting him to Triple-A Oklahoma City. He’d end the year hitting .263 with a .740 OPS, the lowest for a single season in his career.

Nobody, including the Dodgers, could know that Puig would deliver a bounce-back season in 2017.

“A lot of the credit goes to Yasiel,” Friedman said. “Oftentimes when situations play out that way, I think a change of scenery is what is needed for that player to take that next step. To his credit, fortunately, we were able to avoid that situation.”

Instead, the Dodgers retained a player who Roberts said delivered a “complete year,” one in which he showcased his glove, his speed and his prowess at the plate. By being forced into not giving up on Puig, a franchise on the brink of a title ultimately sidestepped what would have been a critical mistake.

“Certainly, with the benefit of hindsight, with the growth, absolutely,” Friedman said. “Again, it’s a testament to him that through all of that, he committed himself to turning that corner and wanting to be a part of the solution, to be part of winning a championship in L.A.”

On Thursday, the Dodgers moved closer to that goal by knocking off the Cubs in five games in the National League Championship Series. Puig was at the center of it all, his emotion on the field adding a dash of flair to what has been a dominant postseason.

“Baseball is a great sport,” Puig said. “Everybody loves baseball. If you do a couple crazy things, it’s not that you want to disrespect the other team. You want to have fun in the game . . . That’s why I do my bat flips with singles, doubles.”

Teammates, Kershaw said, have fed off that energy and emotion. And in a champagne-drenched clubhouse, Puig was an easy figure to spot, dousing some of the same teammates he once irked. As he fielded questions about himself, he turned his focus to the group.

“For 29 years, Los Angeles has been waiting for this moment,” said Puig, whose own emergence helped end that wait.

66 AFTER FIVE

Yasiel Puig’s five MLB seasons:

HR RBI AVG.

2013 19 42 .319

2014 16 69 .296

2015 11 38 .255

2016 11 45 .263

2017 28 74 .263

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