Through the first two games of the 2013 National League Championship Series, little has gone right for the Los Angeles Dodgers. From back-to-back defeats, to Hanley Ramirez's injury, to burning both Zack Greinke and Clayton Kershaw, trouble is brewing for the National League West champions.
On the list of concerns for Dodgers manager Don Mattingly: finding a way to ignite offense from outfielder Yasiel Puig.
Through the first two games of the NLCS, St. Louis has totally shut down the potential National League Rookie of the Year, turning him into just another rookie. In total, Puig has gone 0-for-10 with six strikeouts thus far in the series.
Before chalking up any of Puig's issues to an inability to hit in the clutch, consider this: during the NLDS with Atlanta, the 22-year-old hit .471 with five runs scored.
In the aftermath of Game 2, Don Mattingly spoke about Puig responding to the St. Louis approach, noting that he's sure that pressure is felt, but felt that his outfielder is always aggressive on the field.
St. Louis' mastery over the sensational rookie has much more to do with how they are pitching him, and Hanley Ramirez's injury putting Puig in an unfamiliar spot in Los Angeles' batting order.
As Mattingly highlighted, Joe Kelly and Michael Wacha, the St. Louis starters during the first two games of this series, are using Puig's aggressiveness against him. While it's not a lack of patience that is hurting Puig (many of his plate appearances have been long battles), his aggressive nature on two strike counts has become a weapon for the Cardinals staff.
The following video shows a crucial moment of Game 2 on Saturday afternoon. On a 3-2 pitch with the bases loaded, Michael Wacha fans Puig with a low fastball. The pitch would likely have been called a ball, allowing the game-tying run to score and erasing Puig from a conversation like this for at least another game or two. Instead of recognizing the pitch as low from the moment Wacha threw it, Puig looked poised to swing at anything in that moment. Until he can show the patience to make St. Louis pay for throwing a potential ball four, he won't see a strike in that spot.
While the patience vs. aggression issue can be cured without much of a problem, Los Angeles likely will continue to deploy Puig's bat in an unfamiliar place in the batting order. Due to injuries to Hanley Ramirez, Andre Ethier and Matt Kemp, Puig has been asked to become something he rarely was during the regular season: a middle of the order hitter.
While there's little doubt that Puig has the skill set to one day be a consistent hitter in the middle of the Dodgers order, that responsibility wasn't asked of him much during the regular season.
Prior to October, Puig hit first or second in 79 games this season, but only made 19 starts in the fourth or fifth spots in the batting order. In Game 1, Puig was penciled in as the five hitter. Due to Hanley Ramirez's scratch in Game 2, Don Mattingly made Puig his clean up hitter.
104 games of regular season baseball, along with six October contests, isn't enough to make definitive conclusions about Puig's ability to hit with RISP (runners in scoring position), but the small sample size isn't pretty. In 99 regular season plate appearances with RISP, Puig posted a .234 batting average.
Over the first two games of the LCS, he's left 11 runners on base.
You can be sure that the St. Louis Cardinals scouted and reviewed information on the Dodgers season and path to October. They know Puig is an impact player that is prone to over-aggressiveness and has limited experience hitting in run producing spots.
As the series shifts back to Los Angeles for the next three games, Puig's production, or lack thereof, will be a major factor in the Dodgers' quest to get back in the series.
Climbing out of a 2-0 hole won't happen without production from Puig. As Dodgers catcher A.J. Ellis told The New York Times, the team has relied on him all year.
“It’s no secret we wouldn’t be here without him,” Dodgers catcher A. J. Ellis said. “He plays with a lot of energy and a lot of passion, and he’s somebody we need to continue to be that guy.”
If the rookie outfielder can find comfort in run-producing spots, his talent will take over and allow him to thrive as he did all season and in the NLDS. Until that occurs, however, don't expect the Cardinals' game plan to change against him.
When an at-bat is on the line, Yasiel Puig's aggressiveness will be his biggest attribute, but also his biggest weakness. In Game 3, look for Adam Wainwright to continue to use that scouting report in his arsenal against the Dodgers right fielder.
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