Really, I don’t want to write this again. I’m tired of writing it. Have written it to death. Wrote it on the evening of Sept. 18, when the Dodgers were in Arizona and still trying to clinch the division title, and it became an issue in a game they lost. Wrote it exactly one week ago tonight, when the Dodgers dropped Game 2 of the National League Division Series in Atlanta, the ONLY game they would lose in that series, and it became an issue again.
And here I am, writing it again, in the wee hours of a morning in which Carlos Beltran finally put the Dodgers out of 13 innings worth of offensive misery with a walkoff drive up the rightfield line that brought Daniel Descalso home with the winning run at precisely 12:25 a.m. local time.
So, for seemingly the umpteenth time, here we go again: Don Mattingly made some decisions tonight that were highly questionable. The Dodgers lost an important game. And there appears to have been a direct correlation between those two things.
Look, managing a Major League Baseball team is a hard job, especially nowadays, and it isn’t just about the decisions you make during games. It’s about the thousands of other decisions you make every day, how you handle players who make lot more money than you do, how you soothe egos, how you deal with internal issues, all of that. Second-guessing a manager, now that’s easy. That is where we come in. The fans, the media. We get to sit back and say, “This is crazy, and it won’t work,” and then, when it doesn’t work, we get to say, “See, I told you so.” And we don’t have to deal with the pressure of actually MAKING those decisions without really knowing the outcome.
It’s just that tonight (or was it last night?), in Game 1, even if we didn’t KNOW the outcome of some of those decisions, those outcomes were at least somewhat predictable.
Take the eighth inning, for example. One of the Dodgers’ most productive hitters, their cleanup hitter, Adrian Gonzalez, drew a leadoff walk. It was the third time he had reached base in four plate appearances, on an evening when the Dodgers weren’t generating much offense.
And so Mattingly lifted him for a pinch runner. Dee Gordon.
Gordon is on the playoff roster for the almost-sole purpose of pinch running — and we can probably second-guess the front office for that as much as we can second-guess Mattingly for the way he USED Gordon. Mattingly was quick to point out after the game that you have to “shoot your bullet” in that situation, and opined that the media would be just as quick to second-guess him for NOT using Gordon if Yasiel Puig had followed by plugging the gap and the slow-ish Gonzalez had been unable to score and wound up stranded on third at the end of the inning.
Maybe, maybe not.
But the Gordon move was rendered moot almost immediately when Puig grounded into a force play, part of an 0-for-6 on the night for Puig. With that, Gonzalez was burned, Gordon was burned, and the Dodgers were left with Michael Young at first base for the rest of what became a marathon game. Now granted, Young is no slouch. He is a seven-time All-Star who hit .314 for the Dodgers after they acquired him from Philadelphia in the middle of August. But he would come up with a runner in scoring position in the 10th and again in the 12th, and wouldn’t get that runner home either time. There is no guarantee Gonzalez would have, either. But it would have been nice to have found out, wouldn’t it?
Gonzalez, by the way, was asked three different about Mattingly’s decision to lift him. All three times, he simply said, “It’s part of the game.”
Still, the decision to send Gordon in for Gonzalez wasn’t as unsettling as what happened in the top of the 12th. Because after Carl Crawford led off that inning with a base hit off Cardinals reliever Lance Lynn, who had just entered the game, the Dodgers could have gone for the jugular. Mark Ellis was the next hitter. He was 2-for-5 to that point in the game, with a single and a triple, a good hit-and-run guy. But you could smell a sac bunt in that situation, smell it so strongly that your humble correspondent actually tweeted, “Don’t do it, Donnie.” And to his credit, Mattingly didn’t. At least not at first. With the speedy Crawford breaking off first, Ellis fouled off a pitch, then took a couple of balls.
But then, on a 2-1 count, Ellis laid down a perfectly executed sacrifice. Which moved Crawford into scoring position, sure. But it also LEFT FIRST BASE OPEN with the Dodgers’ most dangerous hitter, Hanley Ramirez, due up. And so, just as he had when Ramirez had come to the plate following Ellis’ triple two innings earlier, Cardinals manager Mike Matheny ordered an intentional walk to Ramirez. This brought up Young, who promptly grounded into an inning-ending double play.
One of the primary reasons managers order the sac bunt, or so I’m told, is to stay away from a double play. Well, Mattingly ordered a sac bunt. And the Dodgers hit into a double play.
Oh, the irony.
After the game, Mattingly also was questioned on his use of closer Kenley Jansen in the bottom of the 13th. I’m not going question that at all, though. Part of my criticism of Mattingly in that NLDS loss to the Braves was that he seemed to be afraid to go against the proverbial “book,” so in the interest of consistency, I’m not going to bash him for going against it tonight. Yes, that book says that a visiting team doesn’t go to its closer in extra innings until and unless it gets a lead. But in the playoffs, you do things you wouldn’t normally do, especially when a game is on the line.
So in that case, I will once again direct my second-guessing at a roster decision. By replacing Chris Capuano with Edinson Volquez and the mightily struggling Paco Rodriguez with Carlos Marmol for this series, the Dodgers left themselves with only one lefty in the bullpen in J.P. Howell. They rationalized this with the fact the Cardinals have a heavily right-handed lineup. Fair enough.
But consider this: the switch-hitting Beltran, who greeted Jansen with his walkoff hit up the rightfield line, batted .315 from the left side this year, .252 from the right side. Maybe if the Dodgers had another lefty in the pen, Mattingly could have brought in that lefty to at least force Beltran to hit right-handed. Maybe he gets a walkoff hit there anyway, given that he probably is the most dangerous hitter in the Cardinals lineup. But at least it would have given the Dodgers better odds.
But by that point in the game, Mattingly had no left-handed options. Howell already had pitched an inning.
This is all spilled milk now, of course. The Dodgers have another game on Saturday, Game 2, and it’s a quick turnaround because that is a late-afternoon game. If they win behind Clayton Kershaw and even the series before it heads to Los Angeles, perhaps everyone will forget any moves Mattingly made in Game 1 that didn’t work out.
It is the sudden frequency of those moves, though, that are a tad disconcerting. Especially in the heat of the postseason. Especially on the big stage. Especially from a manager whose future remains at least somewhat in question because the Dodgers have yet to pick up his option or extend his contract.
This loss can’t be laid entirely at Mattingly’s feet. The Dodgers went 1-for-10 with runners in scoring position. That was the real culprit.
But this is the postseason. The big stage. Where everything is magnified.
And rightly or wrongly, justly or unjustly, what was magnified more than anything else in Game 1 were those two fateful decisions by Mattingly.