Saturday, May 14, 2011 Updated: May 15, 1:19 PM ET
Dodgers sacrifice a win
By Tony Jackson ESPNLosAngeles.com
LOS ANGELES -- As tempting as it is, I am not going to lay the Los Angeles Dodgers' latest loss -- 1-0 to the Arizona Diamondbacks before 30,602 on Saturday at Dodger Stadium -- entirely at the feet of manager Don Mattingly.
Not on an afternoon when their injury-depleted lineup got exposed yet again, this time by a rookie pitcher they had never seen before. Not on a day when one of the finest performances of Chad Billingsley's career was undone by one second-inning mental lapse on someone's part, the clubhouse code of never pointing fingers at a teammate preventing us from determining exactly what had happened.
Andre Ethier got stopped at second base when a sacrifice strategy couldn't get him home.
Still, if you have followed my coverage of the Dodgers, you have read these words before, and you will now read them again:
The sacrifice bunt is the most counterproductive strategic ploy in the game.
And Mattingly, in an apparent attempt to conform to conventional baseball wisdom, put it on twice in the final innings against the Diamondbacks, resulting in the Dodgers' giving away at least one and possibly two outs at critical junctures of what became a one-run loss.
The first one came in the eighth inning, after James Loney led off with a double into the right-field corner against Diamondbacks right-hander David Hernandez, Loney's first extra-base hit since April 6. Mattingly immediately sent the faster Tony Gwynn -- fast enough to score from second on almost any hit to the outfield -- in to run for Loney as catcher Rod Barajas, who is tied for the team lead with seven home runs, came to the plate.
I get the (tired) old argument. By moving the runner to third with one out, you create a situation in which a sacrifice fly ties the game. You give yourself two chances to get the run in. And yeah, the home runs notwithstanding, Barajas was hitting .235 at that point. It also was true, however, that in 13 major league seasons, he had a total of 26 sacrifice bunts, only one of which had come since the start of last season.
Barajas took no issue with what he was asked to do -- especially after he successfully executed the play with a well-placed bunt that easily got Gwynn to third.
"You have to get that runner [over]," Barajas said. "It's a lot easier to get the guy in from third with a ground ball, a fly ball or a wild pitch. There are so many ways to get a guy in, so that is the play right there. I have confidence in the guys behind me."
Except that the guy behind him, righty-hitting rookie Jerry Sands, didn't come up. Instead, Mattingly sent Dioner Navarro to pinch hit -- now he takes the unconventional route, burning his backup catcher -- to face the right-handed Hernandez because Navarro is a switch hitter, with all of his hits this season coming from the left side.
Only this time, Navarro didn't get a hit. This time, he struck out on three pitches.
So much for giving yourself two chances to get the run in. Now, having chosen to simply give up one of your three outs, you are left with one.
Jay Gibbons, the only left-handed bat on the bench with Gwynn having just entered to pinch run, then pinch hit for Billingsley (2-3). Perhaps predictably for a guy who to that point was 1-for-10 for the season, Gibbons popped up to shallow left, stranding the tying run on third base after it got there with one out.
Mattingly later defended his decision to have Barajas bunt.
"I feel like it is [an easy call], especially when I know I'm going to pinch hit there and get the matchup I want, at least lefty-righty against a guy we don't know and don't have a history against," he said. "I really feel like it was one of those decisions where you would do it again."
Which, of course, Mattingly did in the ninth.
Jamey Carroll led off by pushing a ground single through the right side against Diamondbacks closer J.J. Putz, whose eighth save didn't look at that point like it was going to come easily. That brought up Aaron Miles, who, naturally, was called upon to sacrifice. Miles took two shots at it, bunting foul each time, then was allowed to swing away. But with the extreme handicap of an 0-2 count, he took a ball, fouled off a pitch, then struck out on a pitch in the dirt.
Andre Ethier then worked Putz for a walk -- advancing a runner without giving up an out -- before Matt Kemp grounded into a game-ending double play on the first pitch he saw from Putz. Maybe they should have had Kemp sacrifice in that situation, the avoidance of a double play being another of the common rationalizations managers use for putting a bunt on.
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There are times when the only appropriate play is a sacrifice bunt. Those times are when a pitcher is at the plate, there is a runner on base with an open base in front of him, and there are less than two outs. That's it. In my less-than-humble, easily shared opinion, those are the only times when it isn't akin to shooting yourself in the foot, when it isn't presenting your opponents with a gift-wrapped out that gets them closer to escaping the jam.
You don't do it to avoid double plays. You don't do it to create sacrifice flies, which seem to be about as rare as two-out, run-scoring hits these days. You don't do it just to get a guy into scoring position. Give me a man on first with nobody out and three chances to advance him three bases than a guy on second with one out and two chances to advance him two bases any day of the week.
I have no data to support my case here, other than more than a decade of watching a big league baseball game almost every day and a long-building skepticism about the effectiveness of this age-old strategy. One of the arguments that could be made in Mattingly's favor is that the Dodgers have such a weak offense that they have to try to create runs. I say the exact opposite, that their offense is so weak they simply can't afford to be giving up outs when they have only three of them per inning to work with.
The third-place Dodgers (19-21), who fell 3 1/2 games behind the division-leading San Francisco Giants in the National League West, lost a game in which they allowed only one hit for the first time in 97 years. On a day when they were completely befuddled for six innings by Diamondbacks rookie Josh Collmenter (2-0) in his first major league start, that isn't Mattingly's fault. But we will never know what would have happened if Barajas had been allowed to swing away in the eighth or if Miles had been allowed to do so before falling hopelessly behind in the count in the ninth.
And that much, at least, is all on Mattingly.
Tony Jackson covers the Dodgers for ESPNLosAngeles.com