Machado, Puig embrace their villain roles all the way to World Series

ByAlden Gonzalez ESPN logo
Sunday, October 21, 2018

MILWAUKEE -- It was the top of the sixth inning. The Los Angeles Dodgers had two on with two out while still only leading by a run, their World Series hopes still very much teetering in the balance. And Miller Park began to shake. Yasiel Puig, the locals' second-favorite villain, walked to the batter's box, and in that moment, David Freese thought about how he wouldn't want it to be anybody else.

The Dodgers are loaded with star talent, from Justin Turner to Manny Machado to Cody Bellinger. But Puig doesn't fear situations like these, perhaps doesn't even register them. He embraces the noise like few others would. They fuel his spirit. Freese has learned that about Puig in less than two months as his teammate, and so he turned to Dodgers catcher Yasmani Grandal and said, "This is who you want up."

"Next thing you know, he pops one," Freese said. "And he has a great time doing it. A lot of guys, including myself, when you succeed, it's more relief than joy. I don't think he has relief in him. It's joy. It's pure joy. He's not faking it. It's great. It's admirable, in a sense. A lot of people aren't like him, but man, it helps him."

Puig's three-run home run -- a low line drive to straightaway center field -- extended the Dodgers' lead to four, providing enough cushion for a 5-1 victory over the Milwaukee Brewers in Game 7 of the National League Championship Series on Saturday night. Puig lifted his arms in triumph, then wiggled his fingers in an attempt to ignite a hostile crowd.

Miller Park, 44,097 strong, fell silent.

"That's the best feeling there is," Machado said in Spanish, while getting doused in champagne. "That's the best feeling there is."

Walker Buehler recorded the first 14 outs, Clayton Kershaw got the final three and Bellinger finished as the NLCS MVP. But Machado and Puig, who constantly heard jeers and often pleaded for more, had their fingertips all over the victory that sent the Dodgers to their second consecutive World Series.

"They're always going to boo the best," Machado said, "so we just take it all in."

It all began with a bunt. Machado led off the top of the second against Brewers starter Jhoulys Chacin, his Dodgers trailing by a run. On the eighth pitch of the at-bat, with the count full, Machado squared around, surprising third baseman Mike Moustakas with a perfect bunt up the third-base line.

Bellinger called it "a momentum-changer." Five pitches later, he turned on a 90 mph two-seam fastball and skied a towering, 425-foot home run to give the Dodgers a lead they wouldn't relinquish.

It was the 18th bunt single of Machado's seven-year career and his first since September 2017. The guy who admittedly doesn't play hard -- who recently told The Athletic that hustling is "not my cup of tea" -- made it from home plate to first base in four seconds flat, four-tenths of a second faster than he did at any point during the regular season.

So, why the bunt?

"You really don't want to know," Machado said. "I can't say what I really want to say."

Soon after, Machado revealed the reason: Chacin quick-pitched him. He came set and stepped off, and as Machado was getting ready a second time, he fired a pitch from the rubber, prompting Machado to improvise.

"I know it was a little ballsy," Machado said, "but anything to win."

When he reached first base, Machado tugged at his nether regions while the crowd continued to jeer. Asked about it, he said: "Honestly, I have no idea. All I heard was, 'Manny sucks.'"

Machado heard that a lot throughout the series. The Brewers tried aggressively to trade for him in July, then watched him land with the Dodgers a couple of days before a midsummer series at Miller Park.

Machado nailed Brewers catcher Manny Pina with his backswing after a strikeout in Game 1, never bothering to look back and check. He twice reached out his hands to interrupt a turn from shortstop Orlando Arcia in Game 3, getting called for interference after his second attempt. And he reached out to step onJesus Aguilar's foot as he crossed first base in Game 4, causing both benches to clear and drawing a fine.

Machado was booed vociferously when the series shifted back to Milwaukee. He egged fans on as he retreated to the dugout in Game 6, the early part of an 0-for-4, two-strikeout performance. In Game 7, he found a willing partner in Puig, who drew the ire of Brewers fans when he predicted another World Series appearance before the NLCS began.

Puig reached second base immediately after Bellinger's home run and slammed both hands toward his groin, delighting Machado and enraging Milwaukee.

He then enjoyed his home run more than many would.

"I think about Rickey Henderson back in the day," Dodgers hitting coach Turner Ward said. "That's what Rickey did. Rickey wanted to bring all that attention onto himself and take it off other people; and to me, that's what Yasiel does. He kind of brings that excitement onto himself and kind of alleviates it from others."

In their brief time together, Machado and Puig have discovered a weird sort of commonality. Their style of play enrages onlookers and infuriates opponents, even if for drastically different reasons. Machado plays so laid back that it often insults traditionalists; Puig plays so boisterously that it makes him a villain.

Neither will change.

Their teammates have grown to love them for it, even while others don't.

"There's guys that need to be who they are to have the best chance to succeed, not only for the team, but for themselves," Freese said. "There's numerous guys throughout the league that guys view the wrong way, but honestly, who gives a s---? It's on you to perform. If you're going to close yourself off to make strangers happy, that's bad news."

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