SAN FRANCISCO -- Yasiel Puig listened like a dutiful student and did as instructed Sunday. He turned patient and watched pitches, because he didn't want a repeat of Saturday's four-strikeout game, when he chased balls so far outside they appeared bound for Fresno.
So he stood in against the Giants' Chad Gaudin, recently re-commissioned as a starting pitcher, and looked at a slider just inside of the plate, at the knees. Puig could have turned on that one, easily. But he knew he needed to dial back the aggression that threatened to put 22-year-old body in a full ice wrap every night and to persuade pitchers to keep tossing to Fresno. So he watched.
Next pitch: a fastball, outside corner, also at the knees. Called strike two. This experiment was not going well. Gaudin must not have talked to the advance scouts or listened to any teammates, or even watched Saturday night's game. Why was he throwing strikes to this guy, whose first month in the majors had created an inferno?
Third pitch: another fastball, way up, 1-2 count.
Fourth pitch: a slider, diving toward the dirt. Puig's bat finally moved, in a desperate lunge. He tried to stop but couldn't. He had struck out five times in a row.
The baseball people in the place, including Barry Bonds in a lower box seat, had to be nodding to themselves: Yep, scouting and a little familiarity had finally caught up with Puig, making him mortal, halting work on his Hall of Fame plaque. In his 32 games as a big-leaguer, he had seen two teams more than once, and both of them had given his bat a cold shower the second time around. The Giants had now held him to one hit in 10 at-bats for the weekend.
The patience didn't stick around for long. Puig would look at just one more pitch the rest of the day. He struck out once more, but he also collected two singles, stole a base, tried and failed to steal another, made a spectacular sliding catch in right, scored the deciding run and wrought havoc on the Giants' psyche.
The 40,000 Puig Factor T-shirts, to be distributed to fans at Dodger Stadium next Sunday, will not be returning to the manufacturer. It will be his 41st day as a major-league ballplayer. Like its Cuban superstar, the franchise defines "patience" very loosely.
The Dodgers' 4-1 win on Sunday, which gave them two out of three games in San Francisco, validated them as the most dangerous sub-.500 team in baseball. They remain three games under as they head into a series in Arizona, but the tale of the poor little rich boys in blue has clearly been written in lead, not ink. It can and will be erased, and not all because of Puig.
The fashionable stat says that the Dodgers have a 19-13 record with him, and 23-32 without. But the team went 6-8 in Puig's first 14 games and didn't really start to look like a contender until the return of Hanley Ramirez to the everyday lineup. His torrid bat, along with Puig's, has helped yield a 14-7 record since June 14. The two of them ended Sunday's game hitting .409 (Puig, OPS 1.114) and .410 (Ramirez, OPS 1.200), making every other teammate's job a little easier.
Puig ended up 3 for 13 against the Giants and 4 for 16 in a series two weeks earlier against the Padres, who had also played against him before. He is 45 for 98 in every other at-bat. (He went 6 for 12 with a homer in his first series against the Giants and 5 for 12 with two homers in his first meeting with the Padres.)
But the concern about Puig covered more than just how he'd fare against teams that knew him; it encompassed how this intense personality would respond to his first taste of big-league frustration. Five straight strikeouts over two games didn't qualify as a major slump, but for a rookie who has gone hitless just four times in his first 30 games, they held real potential for spiraling. He did not look lost at all when he faced Giants closer Sergio Romo in the top of the ninth. He went down to get a slider, as supple as rhythmic gymnast, and stroked it into left, then executed a bat flip that suggested he remembered Romo's excitability after striking out Puig the day before.
"Yesterday, he struck me out, he controlled Hanley, and he celebrated," Puig said in Spanish, according to a translation by Dylan Hernandez of the Los Angeles Times. "Today, it was our turn to celebrate. We were screaming at him, but it wasn't anything bad."
With the bases loaded and nobody out, Ramirez came up and grounded to Romo. The closer started to go to first but, in a panic, spun around to check Puig at third base -- a very exaggerated look-him-back move. Puig had scored from second on a groundout last week against the Rockies, and the memory obviously rattled Romo. He still made the play at first, but ultimately surrendered a three-run double to catcher A.J. Ellis.
Puig talked to the media with ice strapped to each shoulder and against the hip he bruised while leaping to make a catch late last week. His constant churn both thrills and alarms the team. It raises the Dodgers' metabolism but constantly threatens to put him on the disabled list, home to too many players already this year.
Much of Puig's postgame interview dwelled on his status as one of the final five National League players up for an All-Star spot. He insisted that he didn't care. The Dodgers obviously would love it, but Puig promises an even bigger prize. The franchise has won 16 Rookie of the Year awards, more than any team in baseball by far. (The Yankees sit in second with eight.) But no Dodger has won since 1996, when Todd Hollandsworth completed a streak of five in a row.
The club has been defined by great pitching and tremendous scouting, which yielded all those ROY awards. The 2013 version could vaguely mimic the past, with Zack Greinke -- especially now that he has been the centerpiece of two brawls that began with hit batters -- playing Don Drysdale to Clayton Kershaw's Sandy Koufax.
The vastly expanded payroll would make most of it possible, including Puig's rookie contract worth $42 million over seven years. The club has been insatiable about gathering talent, and general manager Ned Colletti pounced on Marlins starter Ricky Nolasco this weekend, trading three minor-leaguers to get him and to keep him out of the hands of the Giants, who need another starter.
They resisted one bit of aggression. The hints that they might fire manager Don Mattingly in late May came to nothing, even after he made surprisingly candid comments about the club's expensive -- and at that point, fairly fruitless -- roster building.
This club has too many complicated personalities who don't yet know each other well -- from the brightly eccentric Greinke to the gently thoughtful Matt Kemp to the frenzied Puig -- for a new manager to step in easily. So MLB's great aggressors tilted toward patience. It should last longer than Puig's did.