LOS ANGELES — Officially, the Los Angeles Dodgers have used a franchise-record-tying 55 players this season, although that number might not be completely accurate.
It might be necessary to count Yasiel Puig twice, thus making it 56 different players to wear a Dodgers uniform.
If it seems like there have been two different Puigs to play for the Dodgers this year, it is only because one of the game’s biggest lightning rods for attention has made an amazing transformation from the anxious, focus-challenged slugger he was over the first four months to the patient, confident performer the Dodgers have been looking for this whole time.
To make the turnaround happen took a bold yet necessary move at the beginning of August: sending Puig back to Triple-A. There was no telling how the move might turn out, and there was plenty of speculation that the once-dynamic hitter had played his last game in a Dodgers uniform.
When Puig surfaced on social media a few days after arriving at Triple-A Oklahoma City, appearing to be the ring leader of mischievous conduct with his new teammates, the needle registering the contents remaining in his Dodgers fuel tank appeared to dip even further to the left.
Then the remarkable happened. Rock bottom turned into a springboard.
Puig’s contributions helped a struggling Oklahoma City team get on a winning streak that carried the club all the way to the Pacific Coast League championship series. Puig was gone by then, having been promoted back to the Dodgers to help bail out the sinking dinghy that was their offense against left-handed pitching.
Since his promotion, after rosters had expanded in September, Puig has been a changed man. He has not been 2013 rookie Puig — not even close — but he has established himself as a possible solution for the lefty issue, and he now looks like he will be of use on a potential playoff roster when a month ago the odds of that happening seemed Powerball-sized.
“I’m just very thankful for the opportunity to just return to the team,” Puig said, when asked if his goal upon his return was to make the playoff roster. “It’s up to them now if they’re going to put me on the playoff roster, but I’m just trying to work hard and trying to get to the end of the season, to the playoffs and give my best for this year and the next.”
Notice the first sentence in the first answer of the interview included the word “team.”
Asked if he is proud of the way he has handled himself since his demotion, the first sentence of his answer included the word “teammates.” The second sentence had the word “team” in it again.
For years, the Dodgers have been trying to get a point across to Puig, and it seems that their tough-love demotion is what finally did the trick.
“I think the demeanor on and off the field has been consistent in that he’s understanding that it is less about himself and it is about the team,” manager Dave Roberts said. “From communicating with teammates, to being here on the bench for the [national] anthem, watching the game, and getting ready as a bench player or to pinch hit, he has done everything we have asked of him. I have said it before: All the credit goes to him.”
Roberts tried to empower Puig like this before, of course. He reached out to Puig at the start of spring training to give him a clean slate. Roberts passed out compliments as if they were Halloween candy, offering praise for Puig to anybody who knocked on his door and asked. But it went from treat to trick and now back to treat again.
His days in Oklahoma City were the wake-up call. Puig seems to be in a good place this week, and seeing his teammates come to his defense Monday night in an on-field dispute with the San Francisco Giants’ Madison Bumgarner could be a big reason.
But Puig is a wildly emotional player who is capable of getting derailed by a bad stretch at the plate, a lack of playing time or anything else that could mess with his confidence. Puig also seems to know that even if he is able to produce over the next two weeks and on into the playoffs, his days in Los Angeles could end anyway.
“I’m proud of the work I have done on the field and with my teammates,” Puig said of his play of late. “I’ve been coming early, I’ve been a part of this team and I am proud of the work I have been able to do and what I have been able to accomplish. I know it will help me and help the team this season and the next one, whether it’s here or somewhere else.”
For right now, though, the Dodgers are getting production from a new Puig. Moving forward, he figures to play right field against left-handed pitching, while Josh Reddick plays against righties.
“The challenge obviously is that both guys feel they should be in the lineup every day, and I completely understand that,” Roberts said. “If you look up and down our roster, a lot of guys can make that case. It is a challenge in the sense of juggling the playing time and keeping everybody engaged, but it is a luxury in the sense that I can patch guys up and put them in individually, with the best chance to have success.”
Puig is even talking about the desire to play winter ball. The Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico and even Mexico sound like possibilities. The Dodgers still must decide if they think it is a good idea health-wise, especially for a player they might be willing to use in trades.
Puig was asked about it Thursday.
“I want to make a trip,” he said, seemingly blowing off the question. But the new Puig paused, perhaps realizing that is not how he wants to answer questions now.
“I want to get ready for next year,” said Puig No. 2, sounding like the more engaged person and player everybody wants him to be.