ST. LOUIS – By late Wednesday afternoon, when Game 5 was pretty much won, and the NLCS was a few outs from returning to St. Louis, and the Dodgers had had their fun, the shadow coming from Yasiel Puig's spikes leaked long and narrow and emptied at the warning track. So when Matt Holliday lobbed a ball between Puig and the right-field line, Puig followed it for a moment, and his sunglasses lit like sparklers, and he moved with some trepidation to the place he thought that ball might return to earth, black and fuzzy against the sun.
He guessed with his glove near his left knee, and hoped, I'm sure, that he'd not misjudged low and left. Neither was accurate. The ball fell and Holliday turned first base, heading for second. It fell softly, so bounded past Puig but not disastrously past, and it was what Puig did next that caused every brow in the ballpark to wrinkle.
In the ninth inning of Game 5 of the NLCS, with the Dodgers playing for anything but a catastrophic inning, Puig appeared to loaf after that ball. Perhaps he was temporarily blinded. Perhaps he knew Holliday would reach second base in both the best or worst scenarios. Perhaps he was sandbagging Holliday into risking third base. Perhaps he knew somehow the Cardinals would put up a wispy fight, would three times put the potential trying run at the plate but ultimately surrender two runs short.
Puig turned and half-trotted back, a man chasing a soda lid in a light breeze. Someone else's soda lid. One he wouldn't mind tumbling away if it did. He picked up the ball, tossed it in, retook his position, held his glove to his face to shield the sun for the next batter, and that was that. The Dodgers won, Puig answered questions afterward by praising his teammates, then directing the conversation toward the difficult game ahead, in which Clayton Kershaw would oppose rookie Michael Wacha in Game 6 on Friday.
Here's the thing about Yasiel Puig: The game finds him. The sun finds him. Debatable strikes find him. Warning-shot fastballs find him, controversy not far behind. The man would be a magnet, if not for the fact he so repels the team in the other dugout, along with the fans in the other stadium. He hasn't been in the league a full season, and in the time of postseason tension and returning drug cheats and the usual matters of winning and losing, there is no more polarizing figure in the game than Yasiel Puig.
Ridiculously talented, just as headstrong, Puig conducts it all by way of his joy, his temper, and whatever's waiting out there next. It runs through his veins, like every heartbeat brings something fresh and oxygenated and wonderful and mystifying and horrifying. It's a helluva ride, assuming he can hold on. By all indications, the Cardinals are not amused. Puig can live with that, presumably. The Dodgers can, too.
It's just a game, after all. And if Puig wants to hold the ball in right field, begging runners to test him, well, that's his prerogative, and won't it be interesting the day somebody takes him up on it. Won't it be dramatic.
And when the game's there to win or lose, it has to be Puig in the on-deck circle, then shuffling to the plate, sketching what appears to be a cross in the dirt with his bat, finding his place in the batter's box, stepping out, swinging for effect, stepping back in. It's his moment. His drama. Eruption or implosion. Something spectacular.
He took apart the Atlanta Braves in the division series. He was hitless with six strikeouts in 10 at-bats in St. Louis, including 0 for 4 with four strikeouts in Game 2, started by Wacha. He was five for nine with a triple in Los Angeles. The Dodgers have grinned and shrugged and let him be, because they're better with him, particularly so with Hanley Ramirez batting .167 in the NLCS, Andre Ethier batting .176, Juan Uribe batting .150 and Matt Kemp riding a scooter since surgery. The Cardinals have changed the subject.
"No, no comment," Zack Greinke said, "since he's on my team."
Take that as you will.
Those who won't approve insist Puig respect the game, whatever that means anymore. What they're really saying is respect it in the exact manner they do. But can the game be any more honored than by a guy who can't sit still, and can hardly live with the failure, and would gladly stand amid the drama? Especially the drama he created.
That's why the scene in right field was just so odd, but then again speaks to what makes Puig more captivating and more polarizing than any other man on the field. What you just saw might be crazy. Or amazing. Or perplexing. What's next might be crazier.