Puig-Chapman showdown will be one for the ages
Pair of Cuban defectors have become two of baseball's brightest young stars
LOS ANGELES -- Carl Crawford grew up in Houston with its steamy summers, but he's never seen heat like this before.
"That's the hardest throwing guy I've ever faced," Crawford said on Thursday night at Dodger Stadium, where he lined Aroldis Chapman's last triple-digit heater into the glove of left fielder Chris Heisey to finish a 5-2 Reds victory that chilled a six-game Dodgers winning streak.
Crawford doubled and scored against Reds starter Mat Latos in the eighth inning. Now it was Chapman, the All-Star closer making his first appearance in five days, coming out of the bullpen to seal the deal.
Mark Ellis punched a 102-mph fastball to right for a one-out single and another pinch-hitter, Juan Uribe, walked on a full count to bring Crawford to the plate representing the tying run. Chapman, having struck out A.J. Ellis to open the inning and then Jerry Hairston Jr., was looking to make Crawford his third victim.
"He was going for the strikeout, for sure," Crawford said. "I saw nothing but fastballs. You don't have time to think when a guy's throwing that hard. It's all reaction."
Here's how Chapman came at Crawford: 101 mph fastball, called strike; 102-mph fastball, ball one; 102-mph fastball, fouled off; 103-mph fastball, lined to left.
"I was kind of curious what it would be like," Crawford said. "It was lefty on lefty, a little scary at first. I definitely wasn't swinging at the first pitch. I needed to get a look at him.
"When I made contact [on the foul ball], I felt like I was seeing it all right. Then I hit it hard to left, but they must have known that's where I was going to hit it. The guy [Heisey] was standing right there, almost exactly on the line."
Told the last pitch was caught at 103 on the gun, Crawford grinned.
"I did what I could," he said.
In the on-deck circle as Crawford took his stance was Yasiel Puig, the sensational Cuban import who revived the Dodgers with his abundant talent and energy. No doubt, Puig was hoping to get a crack at his countryman, Chapman.
"I asked him," Crawford said, "and he said he's never faced the guy before. I was trying to give Puig a shot at him."
A sellout crowd numbering 53,275 exhaled as the game ended. Everyone in the ballpark knew their chance to watch a memorable confrontation - Chapman vs. Puig - was oh-so close.
"I didn't want to see the guy there," Reds manager Dusty Baker said when asked about his first impressions of the Dodgers' right fielder. "When I saw the ball come off Crawford's bat, I could see we had it, and I was feeling good about that.
"Those guys over there have a lot of talent. They have power and speed. As for Puig, he's got skills. One thing for sure, he can fly. I didn't see his arm, but I've heard about it. He's really put together. I've heard the Bo Jackson comparisons, and I can see that. He's an impressive athlete."
Puig, coming off a three-hit game in Toronto, featuring his ninth homer as the Dodgers wrapped up a 6-0 trip through the East, came out smoking against Latos -- the Reds' resident ace in the absence of injured Johnny Cueto.
On a 2-2 count in the first inning, Puig lashed a sizzling line drive that Joey Votto stabbed. This deprived fans of the excitement of a Puig dash for second and a throw from right fielder Jay Bruce.
Leading off the fourth, Puig banged a first-pitch slider into center field and took his familiar wide turn off first, which did not go unnoticed by Shin-Soo Choo.
The center fielder unleashed a throw that drifted away from Votto for a two-base error, sending Puig to third. He scored on Adrian Gonzalez's infield out, trimming a 2-0 deficit that had been created by Xavier Paul's first-inning solo homer off Zack Greinke and Cesar Izturis' two-out RBI single in the second.
"That wasn't a bad play," Baker said, referring to Choo's attempt to erase Puig. "If it's on a line, he has him. It had a tail and was cutting away from Joey.
"Those things happen when you're hustling. The only way to put pressure on is to run. Most guys can't run like that. This guy [Puig] comes to play."
Puig singled again, a bullet to left, leading off the sixth after Bruce's two-run homer gave Latos breathing space. But Gonzalez banged into a double play. In his final at-bat, after Crawford's double in the eighth, Puig grounded to short.
The night ended with Puig hitting .379. His slugging percentage is .593. His on-base percentage is .419. He has some terrible at-bats and runs into an occasional out, and he has this worrisome habit of running full-tilt into walls. He did it again on Thursday night chasing a foul ball down the line.
Puig is a show. So is Chapman, the man who gets the ball from Baker with games on the line. The save was his 24th. He has rung up 70 strikeouts in 41 2/3 innings, allowing 49 baserunners with a 2.59 ERA.
Baseball is a global sport, and two of its most exciting performers are Cuban defectors. We narrowly missed seeing them go mano-a-mano, but that time will come.
And it will be a spectacle.
Lyle Spencer is a columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.