By BETH HARRIS, AP Sports Writer
LOS ANGELES (AP) — Wagging his tongue, licking his bat and calling his shot, Yasiel Puig has powered the Dodgers’ run to their first World Series appearance in 29 years.
Heck, the 26-year-old Cuban has even assigned himself a curtain call.
Puig’s play and personality have been a huge hit on baseball’s biggest stage. He’s been shrewd at the plate and his arm is a cannon from the outfield. His emotional behavior has sparked the team while he’s remaining focused on the field.
He’s been a revelation of the best kind during these playoffs, quite the opposite of the defector who alternately delighted and bedeviled his manager, teammates and the Dodgers’ front office upon making his big league debut in June 2013.
Puig hit .455 in the NL Division Series against Arizona, licking his bat, making faces and flipping his bat after a mere single. Those are the kind of antics that used to rankle his teammates and divide fans into those who loved his passion and those who felt it detracted from the team.
Away from the field, there were two reckless driving arrests eight months apart in his rookie year. During games, there were foolish decisions on the base paths and in the outfield that maddened fans and the front office alike. Hamstring issues reduced Puig’s playing time and production the last two years.
Things came to a head last fall when Puig got demoted to the minors and the Dodgers seemed intent on trading away their runner-up for NL Rookie of the Year in 2013. Suitably chastened, he rejoined the team that September and ended the regular season hitting .263.
This season, Puig has been more good than bad (obscene gestures to fans in Cleveland in June and benched by manager Dave Roberts for ending a game on an ill-conceived steal attempt in September).
He’s had a career year: staying healthy enough to play in 152 regular-season games while setting personal bests with 28 home runs, 74 RBIs and 15 stolen bases to go with a lone error.
His tear has extended into the playoffs.
In eight games, Puig is batting .414 — third-highest on the team. His 12 hits are tied for the team lead with third baseman Justin Turner. The Cuban has produced six runs, six RBIs and six walks. He has an OBP of .514 and a slugging percentage of .655.
Just three years ago, Puig struck out seven times in a row in the NLDS against St. Louis.
So far in these playoffs, he’s struck out three times.
Call it maturity or simply experience, Puig’s numbers and his infectious joy have helped silence some critics. He’s not just playing for himself anymore, either. Puig is the father of two sons, and his girlfriend is expecting a third.
Retired Hall of Fame broadcaster Vin Scully got it right when he dubbed Puig “The Wild Horse” as a rookie. His talent and unpredictable ways make every game, even every inning, a whipsaw of emotion.
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