Dodgers’ Yasiel Puig Is an Object of Affection Once More

CHICAGO — During perhaps his best all-around major league season to date, Yasiel Puig, the Los Angeles Dodgers’ tantalizing and sometimes maddening star outfielder, developed a tradition with Turner Ward, the team’s second-year hitting coach.

Through countless extra hitting drills and conversations, Ward, who is from Alabama, and Puig, who defected from Cuba in 2012, have formed a close bond.

After each of his home runs, Puig finds Ward in the dugout, ensnares him with a bear hug and lands a kiss on the cheek or forehead.

“I don’t really like him, but I love him so I have to kiss him,” Puig said.

Asked to count the number of kisses this season, Puig did not skip a beat; he knows exactly how many.

There were 28 regular-season home runs, a career high for Puig, and a critical homer in Game 1 of the National League Championship Series against the Chicago Cubs. He also gave Ward a kiss after a bat-flipping, run-scoring double that started the Dodgers’ tying rally in the fifth inning of the same game.

“I give him more kisses than his wife,” Puig said, trying to keep a straight face. “He likes that, but she might get jealous.”

As the Dodgers sit two wins away from advancing to their first World Series since 1988, Puig has been a vital part of the team’s success. Entering Game 3 of the N.L.C.S. on Tuesday night here, he was second on the team to the star third baseman Justin Turner in postseason runs batted in (six), and he led in walks (five) and exuberance (a lot).

“I don’t know if it’s a higher energy, but it’s the focus and intent on every single pitch that is so impressive,” Dodgers pitcher Clayton Kershaw said. “The talent has always been there. He goes through stretches where he does this, but for him to sustain it through the course of a whole game, and every single pitch of every single at-bat, that’s the potential he has. Maybe the postseason is doing that for him right now, getting him all that more focus. It’s pretty fun to watch.”

It has not always been this way for Puig and the Dodgers. When he debuted in June 2013, Puig mesmerized baseball with eye-popping talent and hair-on-fire energy.

After a stellar rookie season and an All-Star campaign in 2014, Puig struggled with poor performance, injuries and questions about his dedication. His on-field behavior, including bat flips, rubbed opponents the wrong way and led to multiple confrontations with the San Francisco Giants’ star pitcher Madison Bumgarner, among others.

SF@LAD: Benches clear after Puig, Bumgarner go at it
Video by MLB

But it was the Dodgers who grew unsettled by Puig’s comportment. Team officials were unhappy that he sometimes showed up late to meetings and did not follow a consistent routine to avoid injuries.

After failing to trade Puig at the nonwaiver trading deadline last season, the Dodgers demoted him to Class AAA Oklahoma City for a month, with an assignment to grow on and off the field. Even then, Puig was caught in an expletive-filled video with his minor-league teammates, which the Dodgers’ president, Andrew Friedman, called disappointing.

Puig worked himself back into the Dodgers’ good graces with improved play, was promoted back to the major leagues and made the postseason roster.

Despite some lingering minor issues — he was benched just before the playoffs because of a late arrival and a baserunning blunder — Puig has been even better this year.

Dodgers Manager Dave Roberts said Puig had grown, especially in regaining trust from his teammates, and caring about them. “Exponential strides, and he’s obviously a huge part of what we’re doing now going forward,” Roberts said, “and I couldn’t be more proud.”

Once limited by repeated hamstring injuries, Puig played in a career-high 152 games. His batting average dropped to .263, but his on-base percentage reached its highest point since 2014 while his slugging percentage was second only to the mark in 2013. In addition to the career high in homers, Puig has also posted his best walk rate (11.2 percent). He may even win a Gold Glove for his strong fielding and stellar arm in right field.

“This is my best season,” Puig said after Game 1 of the N.L.C.S. “With my teammates and my coaches, I grew up a little bit more, and going to the home plate having fun. I know I hit nothing, I do nothing in the game, my teammates are going to have my back.”

His enthusiasm on the field has remained. During an at-bat in the division series against the Arizona Diamondbacks, Puig licked his bat, shuddered at the taste of pine tar and then smashed an R.B.I. double. Asked about his three-walk performance in Game 2 of the N.L.C.S. on Sunday, Puig was, of course, silly.

“I didn’t draw a fourth walk because my tongue didn’t work on the bat so I struck out,” he said.

The day before, when asked what it felt like to have a packed Dodger Stadium chanting his name during an at-bat, Puig deadpanned, “They were shouting my name because I was the one batting at the moment.”

Puig’s goofy personality is distinctive, but similar demonstrative play is often seen among foreign-born Latino players who grew up showing more passion and excitement on the field by flipping bats or admiring home runs.

“As long as he keeps playing like that, he can take his clothes off if he wants,” said the Dodgers utility player Enrique Hernandez.

And keep kissing his coach, too.