LOS ANGELES – Reduced under their previous ownership to bake sales and car washes to fund their international program, the Los Angeles Dodgers in less than a year sold for a couple billion dollars, then signed an excitable outfielder from Cuba and a stoic left-handed pitcher from Korea. There were other decisions, more money spent, risks taken in the name of a broad organizational reboot and instant big-league relevancy. But these two players were special, as they perhaps would come to represent a global solution to the Dodgers' American baseball problem, that being that the Dodgers weren't very good.
Yasiel Puig was 21. He was headstrong. He was put together like a professional linebacker. Hyun-Jin Ryu was 25. He was quirky. He was put together like a professional plumber. For $78 million in contracts, the cost of, let's say, four or five pretty nice homes from the Malibu coastline to L.A. Country Club, the Dodgers began to build something nice at Chavez Ravine. And on a mild evening in mid-October, with relevancy in the National League Championship Series in the balance, two translators – one in Spanish and the other in Korean – helped both men explain how they'd come to win Game 3.
[Photos: Dodgers vs. Cardinals in NLCS]
Hitless with seven strikeouts in 11 at-bats in the series, Puig had tripled home a run in the fourth inning on Monday night. And Ryu, who'd been dreadful in his division series start and was pitted in Game 3 against St. Louis Cardinals ace Adam Wainwright, threw seven shutout innings. The Dodgers beat the Cardinals 3-0 at Dodger Stadium, where an uneasy sell-out crowd grew into the moment, and the Cardinals fell out of their usual sturdy game, and Dodgers shortstop Hanley Ramirez had two hits and an RBI in spite of a broken rib, and Adrian Gonzalez was accused by Wainwright of "Mickey Mouse" stuff in celebration of his RBI double, and a person dressed as a bear was taken into custody for dancing on the visitors' dugout.
So there was all that.
The Cardinals lead the NLCS, two games to one, and now they are the ones lugging a pile of scoreless innings – 12. When the Dodgers scored twice Monday night in the fourth inning, their scoreless streak was 22 innings.
"I noticed in St. Louis I was trying too hard," Puig said through his translator. "Something my teammates and I talked about. Coming here I focused on staying calm and doing the best I could, especially against such a great pitcher that they have. Thanks to God, everything went well."
It could not have been a Puig game without a uniquely Puig moment, the kind that gets his teammates giggling and his fans fawning and some of his opponents boiling. Generally speaking, he plays the game like a child runs downhill, gravity drawing him until control is somewhere just over his toes, to the second where the inevitable landing must fall somewhere between grace and carnage.
"He's just playing with passion," Dodgers catcher A.J. Ellis said.
Puig, see, came up fifth for the Dodgers in the fourth inning. They'd just scored their first run since early Friday evening. Gonzalez was at third base. Two were out. Puig hit a ball off Wainwright to right field. He'd hit it hard, and there are few things Puig likes better than to hit a ball hard. As the ball soared, and right fielder Carlos Beltran chased it, Puig stylishly tossed away his bat and raised his arms in triumph. This would be a home run, and Puig would walk the first steps toward first base, and it would be a wonderful event for him, right up until the ball hit the right-field fence.
That's when Puig retracted his arms, his smile, and his trot.
"It was a hard-hit ball," he explained. "What was most important to me was that Gonzalez had scored."
It was in that moment, he said, he thought, "Just to get as many bases as I could on my hit."
He landed at third base without a slide, with his arms raised in triumph. He'd broken out, the Dodgers had broken through, and he was going to enjoy it. A lot.
There's probably a rule against this sort of behavior, written into the undersides of old cap brims and on the souls of hardliners. And maybe it was slightly over the top. A man so rarely celebrates both the front and back ends of a triple. Then, so few could.
"He's a good player, there is no question about it," Cardinals manager Mike Matheny said. "Guys are going to handle successes and failures however they're going to handle them, and that's not really our say."
The American game – that thing the Dodgers have been trying to catch up on – asks for dignity. Humility. Respect. Along comes Puig, who honors the game with enthusiasm, and joy, and anger, and showmanship. This being what bubbles inside him, that brings a darkly slammed bat as it does a howl of satisfaction, that is his game.
"I always give it my best," he said. "I'm always having fun on the field. In St. Louis, it was obvious that I wasn't quite having as much fun as I was really focused on trying to get a hit. But coming back to Los Angeles, and with the help of my teammates, I was able to get back to really having fun. That's all it really is for me is having fun playing the game."
When the Puig affair had died down, Ryu pitched three more scoreless innings. Before the final out of the seventh, with a runner on base and slugger Matt Adams waiting, Mattingly and Ryu's translator went to the mound. The lead was 2-0. Ryu had passed 100 pitches, though with better velocity than he'd had in recent weeks, and with a sharp, precise curve ball, and his usual disappearing changeup. Help waited in the bullpen.
"Can you get this guy?" Mattingly asked.
Ryu nodded several times.
"I felt completely fine," Ryu said later through his translator.
Ryu struck out Adams with a fastball, one of his best of the night, over the strike zone. He bounded from the mound. Ellis, his catcher, threw a roundhouse fist through the air.
Ryu had pitched the Dodgers into a series that might have been lost. He'd pitched one of the Dodgers' aces – Zack Greinke – back into the series on regular rest, if the Dodgers so chose. (As of late Monday night, team officials were leaning toward starting Ricky Nolasco in Game 4 Tuesday, but also were considering Greinke on three days' rest.)
"All I was thinking about was the fact that we were down, two to nothing, and I told myself this could potentially be the last start I ever pitched here this year," Ryu said. "So I focused from the very first pitch."
They'd gotten Ramirez, wrapped in a flak jacket, back. And Andre Ethier played center field. They'd come home and won a ballgame Ellis called, "Definitely a must-win," and they'd pushed the Cardinals into mistakes.
Now, about the dancing bear…