Yasiel Puig stood at home plate, arms stretched toward the heavens, watching the José Quintana fastball he had just crushed sail toward the fence in left-center.
His hit didn’t quite reach the stands, but it did carom off the wall, giving the Dodger fan favorite a resounding RBI double. It was the fifth inning of Game 1 of the NLCS and his team was trailing 2-0, having sent the minimum number of hitters to the plate through four innings against Cub southpaw Quintana. But a pair of one-out walks gave Dodger Stadium life for the first time since the early innings, and with chants of “Let’s go, Puig” streaming through the stands, the right fielder answered the plea.
Still, because it was Puig, and because he publicly admired his athletic feat—before still easily reaching second on the double, mind you—the critics emerged.
So effing tired of Yasiel Puig’s act - particularly his apparently terrible vision #DontBatFlipSinglesAndDoubles— Keith Olbermann (@KeithOlbermann) October 15, 2017
Puig shut them up two innings later. In the seventh, with L.A. leading 3-2, he smashed another ball toward left center and stayed near home, both serving as and celebrating the spectacle. That time the ball snuck over the fence, and Dodger Stadium erupted once again.
“I think that it's great when he can play with such emotion and focus as well,” manager Dave Roberts said. “He loves the big stage, and his only focus is helping us continue to win baseball games. … Not only the fans, but his teammates are feeding off it.”
Puig indeed catalyzed innings’ worth of excitement in both the stands and home dugout, as the Dodgers transformed an early deficit into a comfortable 5-2 final margin of victory. The roles were reversed from last year’s NLCS matchup: L.A. was rested, with its ace lined up for a Game 1 start at home, while Chicago barely survived a bonkers NLDS Game 5 against Washington. The Game 1 result flipped, too, as the Dodgers won to wrest early control of the series. Perhaps they’ll continue their recent pattern: Between its last World Series trip and Saturday, the franchise won all five playoff series in which it won Game 1, and lost all 10 playoff series in which it lost Game 1.
Still, this result was by no means preordained, Cubs’ recent NLDS craziness or not. Clayton Kershaw allowed his now-standard playoff homer to a lesser opposing bat, and the Dodger ace worked around trouble elsewhere to finish with five innings of two-run ball. Plus, worrisome news came earlier in the day when the team announced that its best position player, shortstop Corey Seager, would miss the series with a lingering back injury. Over the last two seasons, Seager has been a top-five player in baseball, and after finishing third in last season’s NL MVP vote, he hit even better before the 2017’s All-Star break before stumbling due to injuries in the second half.
“It doesn’t affect the clubhouse,” Roberts said before the game. “We have a lot of good players. That’s not going to sway our confidence. We still have to go out there and play well.” Still, it was hard not to think that Seager’s absence would impact L.A.’s lineup; one projection system switched its forecast from a 57-to-43 percent Dodger advantage in the series to a 50-50 toss-up.
“It’s going to be one of those things where we don’t know where the next guy’s going to come from [to become] the hero of a game or however you want to put it,” Game 2 starter Rich Hill said on Saturday afternoon. “But you can definitely kind of see that storyline building.”
At least on Saturday, several unlikely heroes emerged. Leadoff man Chris Taylor hit the game-winning home run in the sixth inning, his first homer in 51 plate appearances and his first long ball against a non-Phillie or Padre since August. After a brutal September slump, Taylor collected just three hits in 13 at-bats in the NLDS, and his .641 OPS in that series beat only Curtis Granderson’s .250 mark among the Dodgers’ regulars.
Kenta Maeda also fits that descriptor, after joining the bullpen at the end of September and adding three miles per hour to his fastball. He’s now retired all nine batters he’s faced in the postseason, striking out four and throwing nearly three-quarters of his pitches for strikes, and has collected two victories as well, including one in Saturday’s contest. With Maeda, Brandon Morrow, and closer Kenley Jansen, the Dodgers now have a shutdown trio in the bullpen, while their opponents’ relief corps (six hits and three runs allowed in three innings on Saturday) remains a mess outside Wade Davis.
But the biggest hero was Puig, the swashbuckling, tongue-wagging sometimes-superstar who only batted seventh in the lineup but provided L.A.’s two most powerful punches. He’s now hitting .467/.529/.933 in these playoffs, and he’s making Dodger Stadium unusually fun for October. It’s hard to begrudge him the celebrations: At 4-0 thus far in the postseason, the Dodgers have plenty of reason to enjoy how they’ve played.