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Don Mattingly's Managing Must Get Better for Dodgers to Reach World Series

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Don Mattingly's Managing Must Get Better for Dodgers to Reach World Series
Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports

Game 1 of the National League Championship Series between the Los Angeles Dodgers and the St. Louis Cardinals is going into the vault as another chapter in the book of legendary things done in October by the great Carlos Beltran.

Game 1 of the NLCS saw Beltran do that thing he has a tendency to do in the postseason. The perennial playoff hero hit a two-run double in the third inning that knotted the score at 2-2, and it was his single down the right field line in the 13th inning that scored Daniel Descalso and allowed the Cardinals to walk off with a 3-2 victory.

But if you missed it, don't make the mistake of thinking that Beltran won Game 1 single-handedly. He was lent a helping hand on Friday night/Saturday morning at Busch Stadium.

And of all places, it came from the opposing dugout.

We could call the book's latest chapter "Another Carlos Beltran Game," but we might as well call it "The Don Mattingly Game." For while the Cardinals owe their win to their veteran outfielder, the Dodgers owe their loss to their manager. 

The third-year skipper made a series of mistakes throughout the proceedings that cost the Dodgers dearly in the end. And since the night's performance was hardly a first for Mattingly, the writing is on the wall in big, bold letters: If the Dodgers are going to win the World Series, they need Don Mattingly to stop doing Don Mattingly things.

For them to be the best, he needs to get better.

OK, let's get our bearings here. I used the ol' "if you missed it" line back there just as a convenient transition, but maybe you really did miss it and you have no idea what the heck is going on. Maybe you don't know why Mattingly is lying under that bus over there.

Well, let's see. I suppose the madness started in the eighth inning.

Elsa/Getty Images

It was a 2-2 game when Dodgers first baseman and cleanup man Adrian Gonzalez came to the plate with nobody out in the top of the eighth. He drew a leadoff walk against Carlos Martinez, and that's when Mattingly made his first puzzling move. Rather than let Gonzalez run for himself, Mattingly inserted Dee Gordon as a pinch-runner.

A bold move indeed. Gordon's undeniably fast, but he's not a great base stealer, with a modest career success rate of 78 percent. Plus, there was Yadier Molina, arguably the greatest defensive catcher in history, behind the plate. Even putting in Billy Hamilton to run would have been a risky call.

And if it didn't pay off, the Dodgers would have lost their cleanup hitter for nothing.

Sure enough, Mattingly didn't call for Gordon to take off. He stood glued to first base until Yasiel Puig grounded a ball to Cardinals shortstop Pete Kozma, who easily erased Gordon at second base.

And that was it for him. Gordon was lifted from the game in favor of Michael Young, who was inserted in the cleanup spot and at first base. Mattingly had wasted his best speed weapon off the bench, and he ended up with a lesser fielder at first and a lesser hitter at cleanup as a result.

This naturally came back to bite the Dodgers. Twice.

The first time it bit the Dodgers was in the 10th inning. Mark Ellis hit a one-out triple that was followed by an intentional walk to Hanley Ramirez. Young then hit a fly ball to right field that Beltran caught and turned into an inning-ending double play with a strike to home that beat Ellis to the plate.

Courtesy of MLB Advanced Media via MLB.com.

It's hard to tell, even in the slow-motion replays, whether Molina actually tagged Ellis, but consider what that situation might have looked like if Mattingly hadn't subbed Gordon for Gonzalez in the eighth. It would have been Gonzalez at the plate, and possibly Gordon at third base.

Gonzalez, a .293 hitter in the regular season, might have gotten a hit. Had he hit that same fly ball to Beltran instead, the speedy Gordon would have scored easily.

But wait, there's more that went down in the 12th inning.

Batting against Lance Lynn, Carl Crawford led off the top of the inning with a single. Rather than let Ellis hit away, Mattingly called for him to sacrifice Crawford to second with a bunt.

The bunt was successful...and also not at the same time. What it did was open up first base for Ramirez, making it an easy call for the Cardinals to take his bat out of his hands with an intentional walk. That brought Young to the plate, and he grounded into an inning-ending double play.

Meanwhile, Mattingly was making a mistake in-between these mistakes by keeping Kenley Jansen confined to the bullpen, signalling that he was intent on only using him in a save situation.

This despite the fact Jansen held hitters to a lower OPS in non-save situations in 2013 than he did in save situations. And also despite the fact Jansen didn't become the Dodgers "closer" until June.

What Mattingly was doing was prioritizing Jansen's role over his actual pitching ability. As Matt Snyder of CBS Sports pointed out:

Jansen eventually made it into the game in the 13th inning, but not until after Chris Withrow had allowed a single to Descalso and a walk to Matt Carpenter to put the winning run in scoring position with maybe the greatest postseason hitter ever striding to the plate. 

Mattingly could have asked a much smaller favor of his best relief pitcher several innings earlier. He instead asked a huge favor, and Jansen couldn't come through.

When it was all over, there was no quarter for Mattingly in the Twitterverse. Many took to trolling him, but it was Jay Jaffe of Sports Illustrated who said it best with this subtle barb:

This has to do with the aforementioned fact that Mattingly's night of mistakes wasn't a first for him. Heck, it wasn't even a first for him within the Dodgers' last four games.

In the bottom of the seventh inning of Game 2 of the National League Division Series against the Atlanta Braves, Mattingly chose to make a pitching change rather than have Withrow face Jose Constanza, he of the .575 OPS over the last two seasons. Once Reed Johnson pinch-hit for Constanza, Mattingly chose to walk him intentionally to bring Jason Heyward to the plate instead.

This would be the same Jason Heyward who had a .932 OPS after the break. The same Jason Heyward who, seeing as how he posted a higher OPS against lefties than against righties, was not going to be afraid of facing the lefty-throwing Paco Rodriguez.

And ultimately, this would be the same Jason Heyward who clubbed a two-run single that gave the Braves a 4-1 lead. Rather than give a lead to the Dodgers, all Ramirez's two-run homer in the next frame could do was cut into the Braves' lead.

Courtesy of MLB Advanced Media via MLB.com.

The Heyward blunder was a gaffe that actually happened, and then there was the gaffe that could have happened in Game 4. 

The Dodgers entered the eighth inning trailing 3-2 and with a golden opportunity ahead of them with David Carpenter on the mound for the Braves instead of the usually invincible Craig Kimbrel (derp, because he's a closer, derp). When Puig led off with a double, the Dodgers were in business.

And then Mattingly asked Juan Uribe to bunt. He was willing to trust a guy with only three sacrifices all season to not screw this one up. On top of that, he was willing to give the Braves a free out even though there was already a runner in scoring position, and a speedy one at that.

Fortunately, Uribe wasn't able to get a bunt down. Instead, he hit a two-run homer that gave the Dodgers a 4-3 lead they wouldn't relinquish. Via Amanda Rykoff, the irony of the moment was not lost on longtime Dodgers broadcaster/bard Vin Scully:

There's an alternate universe out there in which Uribe's bunt is successful. Within that same universe, maybe that free out bites the Dodgers, who fail to score and then go down against Kimbrel in the ninth. 

And in that scenario, of course, the Dodgers would have burned a start by Clayton Kershaw on short rest for a loss that sent the series back to Atlanta for Game 5. The questions, second-guesses and outrage would have come down on Mattingly like a ton of bricks.

You know, sort of like they are now. As well they should be.

Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports

There have been worse managers than Mattingly. Heck, there are worse managers than Mattingly. It's easy enough to realize that once you remember that Bobby Valentine is still out there somewhere.

Exactly what sort of value Mattingly brings to the Dodgers, however, is unclear. 

It's easy to credit Mattingly with keeping his house in order when it could easily have fallen apart when it was being written as early as May that his job was hanging by a thread.

The team started playing good baseball soon after, sure, but that good baseball just so happened to coincide with the arrival of Puig and Ramirez finally getting healthy. In early July, Zack Greinke turned on the jets. Then, Ricky Nolasco arrived and was terrific for a dozen starts.

If the question is how much of the Dodgers' success this season is due to their talent and how much of it to Mattingly's leadership, you have to side with the former to a staggering degree. With that payroll and that roster, it's not like the Dodgers overachieved under Mattingly.

The debate over Mattingly's actual value to the Dodgers could have been had before the postseason even began. But regardless of the exact number of skeptics he had out there, October was going to be Mattingly's chance to shut them up by managing the heck out of his ballclub. If ever there was a time for Mattingly to be confirmed as a "great manager with great talent" rather than as a "manager with great talent," it's going on right now.

And so far, he's been a huge disappointment.

Mattingly could have cost the Dodgers in Game 4 of the NLDS. He did cost the Dodgers in Game 2 of that series. Likewise, he did cost the Dodgers in Game 1 of the NLCS. That's three games out of five that have Mattingly's fingerprints on them, and not in a good way.

Mattingly can't keep this up. Not at this rate. Not against a Cardinals team that is miles more legit than the Braves ever were—Atlanta tied for last in strength of schedule this season. Not in a setting where one game carries the weight of dozens. 

It's on Mattingly to do his utmost to make sure that weight doesn't come crashing down. If he doesn't, the Dodgers are invariably going to find themselves falling short of the World Series. 

And that's when the Dodgers could well decide that new leadership is needed.

 

If you want to talk baseball, hit me up on Twitter.

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