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BILL PLASCHKE

Don Mattingly shows fire, but his flame is flickering with Dodgers

Stan Kasten hedges his bet, although he says he supports the Dodgers' manager who has gone from ambiable to angry.

May 24, 2013|Bill Plaschke
  • Don Mattingly was backed by Dodgers President Stan Kasten on Friday, but the manager's club showed little fight in a 7-0 loss to the Cardinals.
Don Mattingly was backed by Dodgers President Stan Kasten on Friday, but… (Stephen Dunn / Getty Images )

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Meet Donnie Dark.

The Dodgers embattled manager returned home Friday night with a scowl the size of a block of empty seats in the reserved section. He conducted his pregame news conference with a tight jaw and a thin stare. For 30 surreal minutes, the nicest man at Chavez Ravine barked.

"It's what I believe in the way the game of baseball should be played, the determination you're supposed to play with, the grit you're supposed to play with, the toughness you're supposed to play with," he said. "It's about respect for the game, it's respect to your teammates, it's respect to the organization, to the fans."

BOX SCORE: Cardinals 7, Dodgers 0

Mattingly hasn't looked like this since his playing days. He hasn't sounded like this since he became the Dodgers' manager. The clubhouse behind him was somber. No more Donnie Softball.

"Some of them may like me, some of them may not like me, some of them may think I am full of crap," Mattingly said of his players. "I don't care. I really don't. I just basically speak from my heart."

His aura having been stripped by his inability to fix this mess, his smile having disappeared this week when at least one website had him fired, Mattingly's heart is about all he has left. If he's going down, he's clearly going down swinging.

Swinging and, um, missing. Later Friday night, the Dodgers were engulfed in more misery when they were pounded by the St. Louis Cardinals, 7-0, in front of a booing crowd in a Dodger Stadium that couldn't even sell out for Friday night fireworks.

It's bad here. It's getting worse here. Stan Kasten, the Dodgers' president, said before the game that he is still supporting Mattingly, but at the same time, owner Magic Johnson was declining an interview request, and by the seventh inning, both men had departed the owner's box.

Mattingly made it clear that he's going to keep fighting this, even as it appears it is a fight he cannot win.

"It's more than about numbers there's something inside you that says, 'I'm going to work and work and work,'" Mattingly said. "Teams that win they play hard, they fight, they scratch. You've got to be ready to fight for what you want."

Did he regret how he essentially ripped Andre Ethier in Milwaukee, benching the struggling outfielder for not doing things the right way, stunning observers with his sudden toughness? What do you think?

"Guys who play the game right, they don't have any problem with anything I am saying," he said. "So I can't even come close to backing off things I said the other day. I feel exactly that way."

He not only didn't regret it, he called out Ethier again for saying they never discussed the benching.

"I'm getting old and my memory is going, but we definitely talked," he said.

There was somebody else who didn't regret Mattingly's sudden change of demeanor. In his own pregame news conference Friday, Kasten had a reaction that could be summed up in one word.

Finally.

"I wasn't unhappy to see it it didn't bother me a bit," said Kasten. "I didn't mind that Donnie thought, 'I need to do something to light a fire.'"

Consider the fire lit. Some wonder whether it was sparked by Kasten, who once worked with Bobby Cox, the manager who had the most ejections in baseball history. Others wonder whether, in a late-night meeting in Milwaukee, Mattingly was urged to drop the gloves by General Manager Ned Colletti.

Whatever the reason, there is fire now, but how long it will burn is anybody's guess. When asked whether Mattingly's job was in jeopardy, Kasten said, "No," but then proceeded to hedge his bet.

"I do expect us to turn it around, and because of that, I expect Donnie to be here for a long time," said Kasten, who then acknowledged, "There's another side of that, if things don't go well."

That other side showed up quickly during the Dodgers' loss that further cemented baseball's biggest payroll's spot in last place.

In the second inning, Adrian Gonzalez couldn't complete a simple toss to pitcher Chris Capuano covering first base, allowing Jon Jay to reach on an error. Moments later, David Freese's double off the base of the left-field wall scored Jay.

By the third inning, fans were booing. By the fourth, they were specifically booing the weak-hitting Matt Kemp. In the sixth, some were booing a decision by Mattingly to leave Capuano in the game after a leadoff single, considering the Dodgers' starter had thrown 99 pitches that included some scalding outs. Five pitches later, Freese smoked a shot over the left-field fence to make it 6-0.

The Dodgers are bad. Their fans are mad. Their manager is even madder. And, incidentally, Andre Ethier sprinted down the first base line in three straight groundouts Friday as if he were being chased by wild dogs.

"I think the future is going to work out fine," Kasten said. "If it doesn't, I guess there will be a day when we have to look at maybe a different solution."

After nights like Friday, even Don Mattingly's best punch seems helpless against the coming of that day.

bill.plaschke@latimes.com

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