I like Don Mattingly. A lot. Respect him. Overall, I actually think he’s a good manager. Enjoy working with him every day. Appreciate his professionalism with the media, which makes my job and the jobs of my colleagues immeasurably easier. And every time I hear one of the horror stories about all the maniacal control-freakishness our counterparts down the road in Anaheim have to deal with on a daily basis, I appreciate it even more. And I freely admit that there have been times when I have held back my criticism of Mattingly because of all of this.
Not tonight. Tonight, I’m going to unload. Because that ninth inning, a ninth inning the Dodgers basically gave away when they clearly had Diamondbacks closer Brad Ziegler on the ropes, was one of the worst moments of Donnie’s three-year stint as manager of this club, at least from an in-game strategy standpoint.
It all started promisingly, enough, Michael Young pinch hitting for the slumping A.J. Ellis, who is 2-for-22 since the start of the Dodgers’ most recent homestand, and Young getting a leadoff single. And then Skip Schumaker, who had absolutely smoked two balls earlier in the game that might have left a lot of National League parks, only to be run down by the Diamondbacks’ A.J. Pollock in front of either of those 413-foot signs to the left and right of straightaway center field. But this time, Schumaker drove a clean single to left field, and the Dodgers appeared to be in business.
So far, so good, right? The Dodgers with runners on first and second, nobody out and trailing by a run against a team that has had closer issues at almost every juncture of its 16-year existence (google Byung-Hyun Kim and 2001 World Series). And Juan Uribe due up, just ahead of a kid named Nick Buss who was playing in his third major league game and wouldn’t even be here if this team wasn’t suddenly so injury depleted.
Granted, Uribe hasn’t been swinging the hottest bat lately — he walked to the plate 4-for-22 since his three-homer game exactly a week earlier, but two of those four hits had been another home run and a triple. Granted, Uribe is a right-handed hitter, Ziegler is a sidearming right-hander, and Buss is a left-handed hitter. I guess that’s why Mattingly put the sac bunt on there.
Yes, the sac bunt.
Yes, Mattingly ordered Juan Uribe to lay down a sacrifice bunt.
Yes, with the Dodgers trailing by one run in the ninth inning, in a head-to-head matchup with the last team they still haven’t eliminated in the N.L. West, with that team’s closer in a situation in which he absolutely had to throw strikes, and with one of the only power-hitting threats left in his makeshift lineup at the plate, Donnie Baseball decided to voluntarily GIVE UP AN OUT.
You know the age-old rationale — Uribe’s job was to get those two runners into scoring position so that Buss could potentially drive in both of them in with a base hit or at least bring Young home with a sac fly to tie the game. Makes perfect sense if you’re into age-old rationales, and even if you’re not, it just might have worked if Uribe WOULD HAVE ACTUALLY GOTTEN THE JOB DONE. But instead, Uribe bunted into a force at third base. Now, suddenly, you have the inexperienced Buss, in his 11th major league plate appearance, having to get a base hit to tie the game. Which he didn’t do, of course. He grounded to first, which meant he was able to do what Uribe couldn’t do, which was advance the runners into scoring position for a pinch hitter, who turned out to Matt Kemp, who was stepping into the batter’s box in a major league game for the first time in almost two months. Kemp wound up doing what he always used to do with such alarming frequency back in the days when he was just a struggling young guy with unlimited-but-unreached potential, way before any of us had ever heard of Beast Mode, which was to strike out on a breaking ball that was a foot off the plate.
Game over. Dodgers lose for the ninth time in their past 12 games. Magic number still four.
I pulled Uribe aside as he was leaving the clubhouse and asked him what he felt about being asked to lay down a bunt in that situation. He said exactly what I expected him to say:
“I think the bunt was the best play there. That was my fault. No excuses. I had to do it. I needed to get the tying run to third base and the winning run to second base with one out, but it was just a bad bunt. The manager makes the decision there, and it was a good decision. It was the right thing.”
And really, what else was Uribe going to say? It could be that he was being completely honest, that he did think it was the right call in that situation. And even if he wasn’t, even if he was just being politically correct, that was smart on his part, because it isn’t his place to question his boss.
That’s where we, the media come in. And that’s what I’m doing here, in this post.
Because — and if you have followed me for any length of time, you have heard me say this ad nauseum over the years — the sacrifice bunt, when it is put on with anybody other than a pitcher standing at home plate, is the dumbest, most idiotic, most counterproductive, unnecessary waste of a precious out that a manager could possibly commit in this game. In any situation. Ever. Having watched this game my entire life and having covered it on a daily or at least semi-daily basis for the better part of two decades, I believe as sure as I believe that the sun sets in the West that you NEVER increase your odds of scoring by voluntarily giving up one of your three outs.
Does it work sometimes? Sure, otherwise no one would ever do it. I’ve seen it work to perfection. Saw it work to perfection for Donnie Baseball just four nights ago, when Nick Punto sacrificed Carl Crawford into scoring position in the bottom of the ninth inning of a tie game against the Giants, and Adrian Gonzalez subsequently brought Crawford home with a bloop single to win the game.
It’s a smart play when it works, but you never know it’s going to work until it does. It’s a really dumb play when it doesn’t work. Most of the time, it doesn’t work, at least not to end it’s intended to produce.
It isn’t about where the runners are on the bases. It is about HOW MANY OUTS THERE ARE IN THE INNING. As long as you don’t make three outs, you keep hitting. It ain’t rocket science. And when you voluntarily move yourself from zero outs to one out, you REDUCE your chance of scoring that inning. Plain and simple.
And when the power hitter you ask to lay down that bunt does it in a way that results in a force at third, any rationalization for putting the bunt on in the first place just went out the window.