Don Mattingly's Dodgers haven't performed up to expectations… (Scott Cunningham / Getty…)
From the moment Don Mattingly made his Dodgers managerial debut in the spring of 2011, he has made it his mission to protect his players.
He shielded them from the distractions of the end of the Frank McCourt era, allowing the talents of Matt Kemp and Clayton Kershaw to flourish, giving them the space to become stars.
He shielded them from the distractions of the blockbuster trades a year later, taking the heat for the lousy clubhouse chemistry, giving the high-priced stars a pass on instantly becoming a team.
This season he has stuck his neck out even farther, shielding his players from themselves, putting a bright face on their underachievement despite being criticized for unseemly cheeriness.
Don Mattingly has thrown himself under so many buses for these guys, he has been left badly bruised, nearly broken and prompting a question.
Who, among them, will save him?
Make no mistake, Mattingly will be fired if things don't change with this last-place team, and it could happen before the end of the month. But although there's still time, can any of his players give Mattingly the same hope he always gives them?
Can Kershaw save him? Not really. Baseball's best pitcher works only once every five days and, at this rate, he may work himself into an early autumn, as he leads the league in pitches thrown, averaging a breathless 109 a start.
Can the rest of the rotation save him? Not likely. For all of Zack Greinke's toughness and Hyun-Jin Ryu's promise, the struggling and uncertain back end of the starting five stifles any chance of pitching momentum.
Can Kemp save him? The onus should fall on him; he's the biggest reason Mattingly is in trouble in the first place; his incredible shrinking bat has affected the entire lineup. But his new body may not allow him to turn it around this season. He has lost too much weight, he's clearly suffering from a strange and sudden lack of muscle, and there is no indication that his two homers and 16 RBIs before Tuesday are just a slump.
Can Andre Ethier save him? Not likely. He has evolved into a steady player, but not a saving one. He has been in a slow descent since last June, his power numbers tailing off into this year's .756 OPS, nearly 80 points lower than his career figure.
Can Adrian Gonzalez save him? Not anymore. Did you hear how he told The Times' Bill Shaikin that shoulder surgery robbed him of power that will never return? "The full power is not the same," he said a couple of weeks ago, and, indeed, his home run total has dropped by more than half since his glory years in San Diego.
Can Hanley Ramirez save him? Can he stay healthy long enough? This is the second time in three seasons he has suffered long-term injuries, and this winter he'll turn 30.
Can Carl Crawford save him? He has been splendid, but, face it, unless he does a capable imitation of Rickey Henderson, a leadoff hitter has never saved anybody.
Can Luis Cruz save him? Not playing more than a couple of times a week, he can't. By installing the career journeyman as the everyday third baseman this season, the Dodgers set him up to fail, and he has done so spectacularly.
Can A.J. Ellis save him? Not by himself, although if the Dodgers had a team full of A.J. Ellises, Mattingly would be manager of the year.
Can Mark Ellis save him? Don't we all wish.
Can Dee Gordon save him? See Mark Ellis.
Can Juan Uribe save him? Next question.
Can the bullpen save him? It can barely save a game. The Dodgers have 11 saves in 19 opportunities, a 58% figure that ranks 22nd in baseball. They have three power arms but, it turns out, not one power closer.
Can the farm system save him? If the Dodgers had anything close to a productive farm system, they wouldn't have had to spend a gazillion dollars in allowing the Boston Red Sox to shed themselves of lousy contracts last summer.
Can the team's obvious affection for Mattingly save him? It would, if that love were accompanied by a sense of accountability, but that disappeared last winter along with Mattingly's request for a contract extension. It was predicted here that his status would affect this season and, indeed, as reports of his demise dominate the news cycle, Mattingly has quickly gone from "lame duck" to just "duck!"
In the end, saddled with a team that has been just one rich illusion, it seems as if only a Donnie Miracle can save the Dodgers' manager.
Good luck to the next guy. He's going to need it.