LOS ANGELES -- There was that moment in the first inning on Tuesday when the Los Angeles Dodgers' emotions were in danger of spilling off in all the wrong directions.
Yasiel Puig had been hit in the left foot by an 88 mph Madison Bumgarner cutter. The two had a history, or at least four months' worth of bruised egos to nurse. Bumgarner doesn't like the way Puig celebrates home runs. Puig doesn't like the way Bumgarner yells at guys who celebrate homes runs in ways the pitcher doesn't like.
So, on Tuesday, after he got hit, Puig glared over his shoulder as he sat in the dirt, Bumgarner yelled, "What are you looking at?" and all of a sudden Bumgarner's throwing his glove, Puig's yelling and lunging, players are jogging onto the field from all angles and the umpires are issuing warnings.
Bad timing for the Dodgers. Whether you think Bumgarner overreacted, Puig overreacted or everybody reacted exactly as they should have, the last thing the Dodgers need is ejections, suspensions and ... well, who cares about fines? That's why Matt Kemp, suddenly showing leadership, was one of the first people to get between Puig and Bumgarner. That's why Don Mattingly grabbed Puig as quickly as he could get to him and began talking straight into his ear, no interpreter needed.
"Do you think I understood?" Puig joked in Spanish later.
Apparently, he did. He took his base with no further incident, he played the rest of the game peacefully -- as did Bumgarner and everybody else -- and the Dodgers channeled their emotions appropriately into a 4-2 win against the San Francisco Giants that pushed them to the brink of their second straight NL West title. Sometimes good things happen when you take a deep breath. The Dodgers feel pretty good about their chances of getting it done Wednesday, too, and why wouldn't they? They're sending Clayton Kershaw to the mound.
"Clayton's going to come here tomorrow and be ready to roll," Mattingly said. "He's been pretty good, so we come and I think we plan on winning tomorrow."
If by "pretty good," Mattingly meant, "best pitcher in the live-ball era," he wasn’t exaggerating. Kershaw's 2.00 ERA in September and October regular-season starts is the best among all pitchers -- living or dead -- with at least 200 innings pitched since the 1920s. So, they've got that going for them. But even if Kershaw -- who has a 1.44 career ERA against the Giants -- doesn't win the clincher, the Dodgers have three more games against Colorado to get it done.
That's why Mattingly got to Puig so quickly. There's too much at stake -- for both teams -- to risk somebody getting hurt in a brawl or some kind of chaos leading somewhere nobody needs to go right now. Yes, it's Giants-Dodgers, so you can expect a little hostility. But if they play good baseball for the next week or so, imagine Giants-Dodgers in the playoffs. Wouldn't that be fun? The teams could meet in the second round.
"The best way to respond, really, is to play baseball. Do it with your bat, do it with your glove," was how Mattingly paraphrased the message. "I want to keep him in the game. I don't want him to get real emotional. I want him playing baseball. I needed him in the game today."
It wasn't their emotions as much as their professionalism that seemed to carry the Dodgers to the big win on Tuesday. Justin Turner did what he always does with results he rarely gets. He had tough at-bats. A couple of them happened to end in a ball clearing the left-field fence. Zack Greinke tends to be brutally honest, which means he sometimes advises Mattingly to take him out of games if he's feeling tired after the 100-pitch mark. Tuesday, he said he felt great and advised Mattingly to leave him in the game for the eighth, which worked out great because the Dodgers' bullpen was gassed and Greinke cruised through the inning.
The last two times Greinke threw at batters in games that turned to brawls, he ended up with a broken collarbone one time and suspensions to three of his teammates on the other occasion. Again, not the right timing for that kind of stuff. Greinke said neither the big-game atmosphere nor the simmering first-inning testosterone contributed to his good results over eight innings, during which the only blemish was Bumgarner's two-run home run.
"Any time I try to do more than I'm capable of, it backfires. I just try to do the normal stuff, not try to get too over-amped," Greinke said. "I don't think extra emotion would matter in a series like this. Everyone's already excited. Maybe if it was the middle of the summer -- just another game and you're fighting to get your energy up."
There is one Dodger besides Puig, however, who seems to thrive when emotions are running hot. Just a few minutes after everybody went back to their dugouts, Kemp sent a soaring blast over the center-field wall and Puig scored in front of him. A week earlier, Kemp had been seen yelling at Puig for not taking an extra base in Colorado.
Mattingly called Kemp the Dodgers' "emotional leader." A year ago, they didn't have that heading into the playoffs. Now, Puig and Kemp can keep each other company while everybody else calmly goes about their business.