The night was July 20, 2010. The 49-45 Los Angeles Dodgers were just six games back of the first-place San Diego Padres and in the midst of a six-game losing streak as they faced off against the San Francisco Giants.
Clinging to a 5-4 lead, the Dodgers turned to closer Jonathan Broxton (who was just beginning to fall apart) to shut things down. As he began to falter, loading the bases with just one out, bench coach Don Mattingly trudged out to the pitchers mound to set up his defense (Joe Torre had already been ejected from the game).
After meeting with the infield, Mattingly began to head back to the dugout, hoping his big Georgia-boy-pitcher could get the two outs they needed. Just seconds after leaving, however, first baseman James Loney had one last question for Mattingly.
Wanting to make sure everyone was on the same page, Mattingly turned around and answered Loney's question before returning to the dugout.
Then, mass confusion broke out.
As Giants manager Bruce Bochy emerged from the dugout, he was yelling something at home plate umpire Adrian Johnson, although few people in the stadium knew exactly what it was all about.
Turns out, baseball's rulebook classifies a manager's mound visit as a manager crossing over the foul line or onto the mound dirt. When Loney had asked Mattingly one final question, he had already walked off the mound dirt (by only a couple feet) and then returned back a second time.
Two coaching visits, and the closer must be taken out.
So with Broxton no longer eligible to pitch, Mattingly turned to George Sherrill and his 7.48 ERA (yep, that's the guy Mattingly turned to with the bases loaded and a one-run lead in the ninth).
Sherrill faced only one batter, Andres Torres, who promptly doubled to deep center field, scoring two runs. By the time the rally ended, the Giants had scored three runs and taken a two-run lead they'd never relinquish.
At this point you may be wondering, "Who cares about a meaningless midseason game from two years ago?"
I'm glad you asked.
You see, that fateful night was the first time any Dodgers fan saw Don Mattingly manage anything. Before arriving as the eventual successor to Joe Torre, Mattingly had never coached a baseball game at any level.
And so on July 20, with Torre ejected, Mattingly got his first chance, and all hell broke loose.
Fast forward to today, and I'm glad to say Mattingly's abilities as a manager have grown on me.
Despite a recent slide, the Dodgers still hold the best record in baseball and a three-game divisional lead over those same Giants.
While the battle rages eternally over how much influence a coach can have on a team, I would posit that the 2012 Dodgers are living proof of what a manager can do.
While recent years have been plagued by questions like whether Matt Kemp cares about getting better and whether Andre Ethier even wants to be here, those questions have quietly dissipated in 2012. Sure, winning cures everything, but I think it goes deeper than that.
Through every indication I've received, these Dodgers actually enjoy playing for Mattingly.
Sure, he has some odd tendencies (like his obsession with bunting), but all in all, Mattingly seems to inspire this group of guys to play hard, scrape runs together and actually care about winning.
While most managers have the luxury of penciling in the same lineup day in and day out, Mattingly has been forced to juggle guys no one has ever heard of almost daily. Despite injuries to just about every opening-day starter, the Dodgers remain in front of the pack.
When I evaluate a manager, I look for a few small indicators as to whether or not he's doing a good job.
First and foremost, he needs to win games. Check.
Lastly, I want to know that the players respect the coach and trust him in key situations.
Obviously, this is the hardest of the bunch to quantify, and yet, I think Mattingly is proving that he has won the clubhouse over.
When Matt Kemp first got injured, he assured everyone within earshot that he'd be okay to play. Despite his pleading, however, Mattingly rested him for a couple days before putting him on the disabled list, seemingly against his will. Turns out, that was absolutely the right move.
Another example is James Loney. The struggling first baseman was benched for the third time in five days last night, and yet, there hasn't been a single murmur of discontent from the Dodgers clubhouse.
Sure, Loney is probably pissed, but as long as the team respects Mattingly's decision and is willing to stand behind him, we won't hear a word about it.
As I mentioned earlier, all this is easy to say as long as the team is winning, and given the roster they've assembled, it's safe to assume the Dodgers will hit a couple more rough patches this season like they one they're currently mired in.
After a late-inning victory against the Phillies last night, however, they continue to prove that their manager won't let them quit. As easy as it would be to listen to the voices telling them they aren't as good as their record and cave when they blow a lead or fall behind early, the Dodgers proven they're willing to fight off that urge.
Now as long as Mattingly can remember not to turn around this time, I think the Dodgers will be okay.
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