Commentary

Mattingly's decisions draw attention

A Dodgers loss in Game 2 of NLDS leaves manager open to some second-guessing

Updated: October 5, 2013, 12:36 AM ET
By Mark Saxon | ESPNLosAngeles.com

ATLANTA -- Good managers are good managers because they win games, which is a tad ironic because their influence on the outcome of games typically is infinitesimal.

So, while the hailstorm of criticism pounds down on Don Mattingly, managing in his first postseason, it's worth pointing out that his predecessor got fired three times before he met up with Derek Jeter, Mariano Rivera and a bunch of other great players and won four World Series rings with the New York Yankees.

To this day, there are those who don't think Joe Torre was a particularly good game strategist.

[+] EnlargeDon Mattingly, Chris Withrow
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesDodgers manager Don Mattingly prepares to remove reliever Chris Withrow during the seventh inning of Friday's Game 2 loss to the Braves in Atlanta.

The point is, Mattingly could easily work out as the Los Angeles Dodgers' manager for a long, long time and ride them to great heights. But for that to happen, the Dodgers have to win. In fact, they might have to win two of the next three games.

Many people think the Dodgers need to win this series to save Mattingly's job and, considering they were days away from firing him back in June before the Dodgers got hot, that seems like a relatively safe bet. Game 2 of the NLDS with the Atlanta Braves -- a 4-3 Dodgers loss at Turner Field -- didn't go well for Mattingly, in part, perhaps, because he made some iffy moves. He made the same iffy moves every manager seems to make at this time of year, slavishly following lefty-righty protocol.

Let's start by introducing a little bit of information about Jose Constanza. He is a 30-year-old, 5-foot-9, 150-pound outfielder who has had 236 major league at-bats in his career.

Constanza does have one particular trait that's salient here: He bats left-handed. Chris Withrow, the Dodgers' young, hard-throwing reliever, delivers the baseball with his right hand.

So, with the Dodgers trailing 2-1 in the seventh inning, Mattingly invited his best left-handed reliever, Paco Rodriguez, into the game. Atlanta countered by pinch hitting Reed Johnson, who has made a pretty good 11-year career out of hitting left-handed pitching.

Awkwardly, Rodriguez's first four pitches were intentional balls to load the bases for Jason Heyward. He fell behind in the count, Heyward smoked a single up the middle and, voila, those proved to be the decisive runs, because Hanley Ramirez's two-run homer wasn't enough, and the Dodgers lost by a one-run margin.

Mattingly had his reasons, so don't act as if he didn't. He felt Rodriguez was a bad matchup for Johnson, because the former Dodgers outfielder tends to be a low-ball hitter and Rodriguez often works in that zone. Plus, Rodriguez had been part of the Dodgers' core of reliable relievers all summer.

"He's been getting those guys out all year long for us," Mattingly said.

OK, but not so much lately (opponents hit .308 against Rodriguez in September), and Heyward has been improving at hitting lefties. In fact, he batted .264 against them this season, better than he hit righties.

Plus, there's the slightly less-intellectual, but maybe better argument: He's Jason Heyward and the other guy is Reed Johnson.

"No question. He's a great ballplayer," Rodriguez said of Heyward. "And, in that situation, I would have liked to face a righty, but we do have the stats and you go by the numbers. That's all you can do. That's the way you approach this game."

Interestingly, the man who came out on the better end of the matchup was more supportive of Mattingly than the one who came out the worse for it.

"Play the matchups. That's what the posteason is about," Heyward said. "You go lefty-lefty there."

It is, in fact, the way managers approach the game nowadays, and Mattingly would have gotten equally pilloried on Twitter if he had left Withrow in to face Constanza and that matchup had gone poorly. But man, it just seems as if Friday's loss would have left less of a sting if the Dodgers had been beaten by Constanza or Johnson rather than one of the Braves' stalwarts.

On the five-hour flight home, it's safe to assume Mattingly will be going over all this stuff in his head when, had Heyward made an out, he could have been snoozing happily. He was already beginning to dissect things 10 minutes after the game.

[+] EnlargeDon Mattingly
Scott Cunningham/Getty ImagesDon Mattingly was already dissecting his managerial decisions 10 minutes after Game 2 ended Friday, something many fans, no doubt, were doing as well.

"Yeah, you always look back at everything. You could have done this, you could have done that," Mattingly said. "So, I think you look at it and look at it honestly and see what you think."

You could nitpick some other Mattingly moves. He took out Zack Greinke for a pinch hitter after just 83 pitches even though he had cruised through the fifth and sixth innings. The tying run was at second base and the hitter, Michael Young, actually reached base on an infield hit. But the Dodgers didn't score, and in the next half-inning came the lefty-righty fiasco.

Greinke, who batted .328 this year in 58 at-bats, said he felt strong at that point, but he also said he would have played the percentages as Mattingly did and removed him.

"I'm a good hitter for a pitcher. Mike Young's a good hitter for a hitter, which is a big difference," Greinke said.

It was also a bit surprising that Mattingly didn't go on the field to argue with umpire Bill Miller when he called out Dee Gordon trying to steal second base off closer Craig Kimbrel in the ninth inning. Replays appeared to show Gordon got his hand on the bag first, but even if Mattingly didn't have a good view of it, don't you at least put up a bit of fight to show your team you're part of the fight?

Make your own judgments there. Despite what every living-room baseball analyst might think about all this stuff right now, the only thing that matters is the result. If the Dodgers win this series and keep marching deep into October, Mattingly will look a lot smarter than he does right now.

The fans of the New York Mets, St. Louis Cardinals and Braves probably had a few things to say about Torre back in the day, even if they didn't have the instant gratification of Twitter and message boards. The Yankees' fans, as a rule, seemed to like him just fine.

Mark Saxon

ESPNLosAngeles.com
Mark Saxon is a staff writer for ESPNLosAngeles.com. He spent six years at the Orange County Register, and began his career at the Oakland Tribune, where he started an 11-year journey covering Major League Baseball. He has also covered colleges, including USC football and UCLA basketball.

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