The 21-year old Yasiel Puig strode into the batting cage under triple-digit temperatures at Rancho Cucamonga’s Epicenter Tuesday afternoon, turning the heads of all passersby in the California League hitter’s haven.
On the fourth pitch he saw, he drilled a towering drive over the leftfield wall. Two pitchers later, he sent another ball over the fence with a sharper trajectory that appeared to land in roughly the same area.
In the first gameday batting practice cycle in his new digs, the Cuban defector signed by the Los Angeles Dodgers for $42 million over seven years was certainly impressive – at 4 p.m., at least.
“I am very happy signing with the Dodgers and giving my best every day and trying to help the team,” Puig (pronounced: Pwee) said through interpreter Juan Bustabad, the Rancho Cucamonga Quakes manager.
From 7:05 p.m. onward, Puig looked both athletic and raw and went 1-for-4 with a run scored in the Quakes’ come-from-behind 9-8 win over the Stockton Ports. As the designated hitter, he batted third in the Rancho Cucamonga order after a successful rookie ball assignment in which he hit .400 with four homeruns, three triples, six walks and 11 RBI over 30 at bats.
In the bottom of the first inning, after Ted Lilly struck out two in a rehabilitation assignment and worked a perfect top half, the 6-3, 215 pound Puig swung at the first pitch he saw from Stockton starter Nate Long, sending a well-struck groundball to shortstop for a 6-3 putout. In his second at bat, he sent a two-hopper to second base on a 2-0 pitch and was retired routinely by Ports second baseman Michael Gilmartin.
“He’s aggressive,” Bustabad said.
“For the first game, it was good. He’s happy to be here, and the guys are looking forward to the rest of the way here.”
Puig’s third at bat was his best. After lunging at a slider without making contact early in the count, Long threw the exact same pitch, which he took just off the outside corner of the plate for ball one. Later in the count, on a hit and run, he was able to angle his bat towards rightfield in sending a wind-aided foul ball deep down the right field line and out of play.
After that, he hit his hardest ball of the night, a screaming ground ball to shortstop that was mishandled by Yordy Cabrera, one of two errors made by the Stockton infielder on the evening.
With two outs and nobody on base in the bottom of the seventh and the Quakes trailing 8-6, Puig singled up the middle on a sharply hit ground ball, setting the stage for a baserunning gaffe botched by the Ports that led to Rancho Cucamonga’s two-out rally and eventual game-winning RBI off the bat of Dusty Robinson.
Leaning away from first base, Puig left for second when lefthander Jeff Urlaub’s pickoff attempt went back to the first base bag. Showing his acclaimed speed and acceleration, Puig beat the throw to the second base bag, sliding under Cabrera’s tag for his first stolen base. With a full count to Austin Gallagher, Puig took off for third on ball four and easily slid feet-first under the tag for his second stolen base of the inning.
“He’s got bat speed. He’s got bat strength,” one National League scout said. “I certainly didn’t like the way that he ran the single out when he ran 6.7 [seconds] to first base. Didn’t like the fact that he got picked off.
“There’s power and strength in that body, and it looks like he can accelerate, which he did when he got picked. He looks like he’s got some feel for what he’s doing right there, too, because he kind of deked those guys into following him, when all of a sudden he’s going pretty good and he beats the play. There’s definitely something there.”
Puig, a friend and former teammate of fellow Cuban defector Yoenis Cespedis of the Oakland A’s, asked for patience from fans through his interpreter, Bustabad. The 26-year old Cespedes, who signed a four-year, $36-million contract in February, is batting .302 with 14 homeruns and 56 RBI in his rookie season. The two haven’t spoken since Puig’s arrival in the United States, though Puig said he was excited for Cespedes’ success and hopes to see him down the road in the major leagues.
“Everybody’s helping me out in every department,” Puig said of the Dodgers’ influence on his young career.
“He looks like he’s a fastball hitter, which, as he moves up the ladder, he’ll find out he’s going to see his share of breaking pitches and off-speed pitches,” the National League scout said.
As the manager of a team that has struggled with a 21-28 record in the second half since losing its one-game playoff with High Desert after tying for the Cal League-South first half title, Bustabad is hoping Puig’s arrival adds a spark to a clubhouse looking for one last gasp playoff push. They received the momentum they were looking for Tuesday, erupting for four runs in the seventh en route to a one-run victory and moved within two games of the Lancaster JetHawks for the second wild card spot in the south, assuming High Desert holds on to its nine-game second half lead.
“He brings excitement to the team, first of all,” Bustabad said.
“He showed in batting practice raw power. His speed – he showed it on the bases with a couple of stolen bases. He got his first hit, which is always important to get that first hit out of the way, and a win for the team, which is the most important thing. [He’s] trying to just be a team player, be a part of the team, be one of the guys, and just trying to get better every day.”