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Don Mattingly finds that nothing answers critics like a home run

Juan Uribe's decisive home run in Game 4 against Atlanta defused potential questions about the manager's strategy. Said Mattingly afterward: 'Playoffs are so stupid, aren't they?'

October 10, 2013|By Dylan Hernandez
  • Dodgers Manager Don Mattingly's laid-back demeanor often disappears once a game starts.
Dodgers Manager Don Mattingly's laid-back demeanor often disappears… (Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles…)

ST. LOUIS — As Don Mattingly watched the home run that might have changed his life, he paused a few seconds to ponder the absurdity of it all.

"Playoffs are so stupid, aren't they?" Mattingly remembers thinking. "Just crazy."

Stupidity and craziness that could determine Mattingly's future with the Dodgers.

The Dodgers manager hasn't said whether he has received assurances about his job status beyond these playoffs. Dodgers management hasn't said whether it will exercise the team option on his contract for next season.

Team President Stan Kasten has been silent on the matter, which means Mattingly's fate could be tied to how the Dodgers perform in the National League Championship Series — and a result that could be decided by something as random as a two-strike home run by Juan Uribe.

If not for Uribe's home run in Game 4 of the division series, the Dodgers could have been playing the Braves again Wednesday in a winner-take-all fifth game. A loss in Game 5 could have sent Mattingly back to his Indiana farm and in search of a new job.

Uribe's home run illustrated how a manager's fortunes and reputation can suddenly change.

The Dodgers were down, 3-2, when Uribe came to the plate with Yasiel Puig on second base and no outs in the eighth inning. Mattingly signaled for a sacrifice bunt, a decision he immediately second-guessed when Uribe fouled off his first two attempts.

"Why am I bunting him?" Mattingly recalls thinking.

Never mind that Uribe doesn't bunt well. Mattingly had been criticized for bunting too much and probably would have faced more second-guessing had Puig not scored, regardless of whether Uribe successfully moved him to third base.

As the baseball gods would have it, Uribe connected on a 2-2 pitch by David Carpenter to reverse the deficit. Whatever questions Mattingly would have faced about asking Uribe to bunt disappeared into the stands with the ball.

So did questions about the Dodgers' decision to start Clayton Kershaw that day on three days' rest for the first time in his major league career.

The widespread perception was that the decision on Kershaw was Mattingly's. The manager was the highest-ranking team official to publicly talk about it before the outcome of the game was known. Kasten distanced himself from the move as much as he could, saying he had nothing to do with lineup decisions. General Manager Ned Colletti wouldn't meet with reporters face to face.

Because the Dodgers won, the decision to start became the right one and evidence that Mattingly's bold style of managing could pay dividends. With Zack Greinke in line to start Game 1 of the NLCS and Kershaw available to start Game 2, the move figures to have no lingering drawbacks.

Uribe's home run also turned Mattingly's bullpen management in Game 2 into a mere footnote.

In that game, Mattingly sent Chris Withrow to pitch the seventh inning with the Dodgers trailing, 2-1. The first two batters reached base, but Withrow retired the next two.

When Braves Manager Fredi Gonzalez inserted left-handed pinch-hitter Jose Constanza, Mattingly countered by calling left-hander Paco Rodriguez out of the bullpen.

Rodriguez pitched in 76 regular-season games and was clearly fatigued by September, when he posted a 5.68 earned-run average.

Gonzalez lifted Constanza for Reed Johnson, a career .311 hitter against left-handers.

With first base open, Mattingly ordered Rodriguez to intentionally walk Johnson, which was first-guessed by many observers for multiple reasons.

Asking a reliever to intentionally walk his first hitter is said to disrupt whatever rhythm he developed in the bullpen. Second, Jason Heyward was on deck.

The Dodgers were going with the favored matchup of a left-handed pitcher against a left-handed hitter. But Heyward is also an All-Star caliber player who had hit well against left-handers.

Heyward singled in two runs and suddenly the game was out of the Dodgers' reach.

After winning his first playoff series as a player or manager, Mattingly was aware of how Uribe altered his story.

"It's a good feeling you end up winning because you don't have to answer all those questions," Mattingly said. "But honestly, it's what you do. … You try to put the guys in the right position and sometimes it works, and sometimes it doesn't."

He also noted a now-popular third option: "Sometimes it doesn't and then it still works."

dylan.hernandez@latimes.com

Twitter: @dylanohernandez

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