I’m not quite sure where to begin here, so let’s just start at the top. The top of the inning, specifically, an inning that would last the better part of an hour and may go down as the pivot point in this National League Division Series, which now heads back to Los Angeles in a 1-1 tie. Dodgers down a run, Braves lefty Mike Minor having kept them in check since the first inning, Skip Schumaker leads off with an infield single. A glimmer of hope. Catcher A.J. Ellis up next, the pitcher’s spot behind him in an obvious pinch-hitting situation.
Most of you know by now that I’m not a fan of the sacrifice bunt. So rather than spend a bunch of words here telling you why Ellis shouldn’t have been ordered to sacrifice, I’ll just tell you I disagreed with it. I get why Don Mattingly did it, trying to stay out of the double play on a night when the Dodgers already had hit into two of them, trying to move the tying run into scoring position. But let’s move on.
Ellis lays down a successful sacrifice, Schumaker scoots into scoring position. Michael Young is on deck to hit for Zack Greinke, who to that point had held the Braves to four hits over six strong innings, even though he had allowed a 1-0 lead to get away on a couple of two-out, run-scoring hits.
Let’s stop here and look at the situation. You need a measly single to tie the game at this point. You have a depleted roster, no Matt Kemp, a hobbled Andre Ethier, and you might have to burn two players if Ethier pinch hits and reaches base because you might have to pinch run for him. An outside-the-box manager might consider letting Greinke bat here — he had thrown only 83 pitches to that point, but more importantly, he batted .328 this season with a .409 on-base percentage. But Mattingly isn’t an outside-the-box manager, and that’s fair. It takes a lot of, ummm, gumption to be an outside-the-box manager, and maybe some cachet, too, especially in the glare of the postseason. Mattingly has only been at this for three years. Generally, it takes a little longer than that to build up cachet. If he lets Greinke hit there and it blows up in his face, he is going to face a room full of second-guessing media types after the game and maybe even a second-guessing front office.
So, understandably, Mattingly goes by the book here and sends the right-handed-hitting Young to pinch hit. And predictably, Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez comes to get Minor, bringing in veteran right-hander Luis Ayala to face Young. And Young hits a grounder that first baseman Freddie Freeman ranged far to his right, possibly too far, to snare it, and Ayala might have been a tad late breaking for the bag, and by the time he got there to take the throw from Freeman, Ayala couldn’t find the bag with his foot, and Young was safe. Runners on the corners, tying run on third, one out.
And that brought up lefty-hitting Carl Crawford. Crawford’s batting average against left-handers this season was .206, more than 100 points lower than he hit against righties. And so Gonzalez went to his pen again, this time calling on lefty Luis Avilan.
Mattingly had two right-handed pinch-hitting options on his bench at this point in Scott Van Slyke and switch hitter Nick Punto. Punto wasn’t really an option because if you take Crawford out, somebody has to play left field. Van Slyke plays left field. But Mattingly, who had reiterated before the game that he is absolutely committed to Crawford as his leadoff man, stuck with Crawford. Crawford grounded into a double play, the Dodgers’ third of the night, snuffing out the rally and sending the already-vocal crowd of 48,966 at Turner Field into a frenzy.
Three outs in the inning. One of them a gimme out on a sac bunt. The other two on a single swing of the bat by a guy with speed, who just happened to hit it right to a spot where the Braves had a chance to double him up.
“We felt like Carl would put the ball in play somewhere,” Mattingly said. “We felt like if he got it on the ground, they’re not going to get two unless it’s just a bullet right at somebody.”
That was the top of the seventh, when Mattingly made some tough choices that didn’t work out, but they at least were choices that could be justified, choices that were logical, choices you could understand.
And then came the bottom of the seventh.
It started out innocently enough. Rookie Chris Withrow, who has been pretty good all year for the Dodgers, came on to make his first career postseason appearance. Maybe it was nerves, but he issued a leadoff walk to Brian McCann, and with B.J. Upton pinch running, Chris Johnson lined a single through the left side. But then the Braves returned the favor, giving the Dodgers a free out when Andrelton Simmons bunted the runners into scoring position, and Withrow stood tall at that point, getting Elliot Johnson on a called third strike to put the Dodgers on the verge of getting out of the jam.
Due up next was the pitcher’s spot. And Gonzalez had sent a light-hitting outfielder named Jose Constanza to the on-deck circle. If you aren’t familiar with Constanza, he wasn’t a character on Seinfeld. He is listed as 5-feet-9 and 150 pounds. He had 31 big league at-bats this season, which he split between Atlanta and Triple-A Gwinnett. And Constanza is apparently a model of consistency, because his major league batting average, on-base percentage and slugging percentage this season were all EXACTLY THE SAME (.258).
But Constanza is a left-handed batter, and the flamethrowing Withrow is a right-handed pitcher. And so, in an attempt to create a more favorable matchup, Mattingly popped out of the dugout and brought in lefty setup man Paco Rodriguez, who also would be making his postseason debut. To set up a lefty-lefty matchup. For Jose Constanza.
Now, it’s entirely possible that Mattingly fully knew that if he brought in Rodriguez, Gonzalez was going to counter with a right-handed batter. But what happened over the next few minutes seemed to suggest otherwise — as did Mattingly’s own words in the postgame press conference.
More on that later.
Anyway, with Rodriguez warming up, Constanza was called back and replaced by right-handed-hitting Reed Johnson, the former Cal State-Fullerton guy. Now, keep in mind Johnson may be even less of an offensive threat at this point than Constanza. Johnson hasn’t had a hit since July 28. That’s mostly because he missed about six weeks with Achilles’ tendinitis, but still, he went hitless in 10 plate appearances after coming back a couple of weeks ago. Rodriguez, meanwhile, is much tougher on lefties, but he ain’t all that easy on righties, either. He held them to a .202 average this season, with 19 strikeouts in 96 plate appearances. Righties did touch him for four home runs, but I mean, this is REED JOHNSON.
And so, naturally, with first base open, two outs and Jason Heyward on deck, Mattingly ordered Rodriguez to intentionally walk Johnson. The first batter he faced. Reed Johnson. To load the bases. With Jason Heyward on deck. Yes, the same Heyward who hit a disappointing .254 this season and came back just two weeks ago after missing a month with a broken jaw that required surgery. OK, fine. But he is still one of the most dangerous hitters in the league. And the Dodgers intentionally walked REED JOHNSON to get to him. To get to JASON HEYWARD. All so Rodriguez could pitch to a lefty, presumably giving him a better chance of getting out of the jam.
And, oh, by the way, while it’s true that Heyward hits for more power against right-handers, he actually batted 14 points HIGHER against lefties this season than against righties. Just sayin’.
After the game, Mattingly was asked about bringing in Rodriguez to issue an intentional walk to the first batter when he just as easily could have allowed Withrow to do that.
“Well, if a guy is up there we know we’re going to walk, we would do it differently,” Mattingly said.
Does that mean he really thought Constanza was going to hit against Rodriguez?
And also, Mattingly was asked about walking Johnson to get to Heyward.
“Paco is a guy that pitches down and fits into Reed,” Mattingly said, meaning Rodriguez pitches to Johnson’s strengths. “We felt like Paco fits into Reed, (but) he is a guy we think gets Heyward out. Been getting those guys out all year long for us.”
Heyward was asked later what he thought of the decision.
“Play the matchups,” he said, being as charitable as he could. “That is what the postseason is about. You go lefty-lefty there. Me personally, I’m glad to have an opportunity to come through big for my team right there. I got a pitch, and I didn’t miss it.”
Heyward lined a two-run single up the middle against Rodriguez, giving the Braves a 4-1 lead. Hanley Ramirez hit a two-run homer in the eighth, cutting it to 4-3, but that only served to magnify all that questionable, head-scratching stuff that had transpired back in the seventh. The Dodgers mounted a mini-rally in the ninth against Braves closer Craig Kimbrel, working him for back-to-back one-out walks, but in between those, Dee Gordon got himself thrown out trying to steal second on a bang-bang call that umpire Bill Miller may or may not have gotten right.
And just like that, the series was even. And Mattingly was left to explain himself.
How well he managed to do that, well, that is for others to decide.