Dodgers right fielder Yasiel Puig reacts as he pops out to third base to end… (Wally Skalij / Los Angeles…)
ST. LOUIS — Nearly half-past midnight here, the fireworks blazed, the rock music blared, and the red-clad crowd roared.
All of which was surely nothing compared to the noises rattling around inside the Dodgers' psyche — and surely inside their embattled manager's head — after they watched a precious postseason win slip into a loss.
It was 13 agonizing innings. It was nearly five tense hours. Yet for the Dodgers, the National League Championship Series opener felt like forever after the Cardinals stole a 3-2 victory Friday night at Busch Stadium.
It was just one loss, but it seemed like much more. It was the defeat of a team whose starting pitcher, Zack Greinke, threw eight mostly brilliant innings, striking out 10. It was the defeat of a team that had one hit in 10 chances with runners in scoring position.
More than anything, though, it was the defeat of a team whose managerial decisions led it there.
Don Mattingly, whose curious moves led to the Dodgers' only loss in the division series against the Atlanta Braves, pulled another ugly rabbit out of his cap to become the main player in their second postseason loss. Mattingly made questionable late-inning moves during the regular season, but under the postseason spotlight, his moves have been magnified and the heat has been turned up considerably.
Friday night, the spotlight initially focused on the eighth inning, when Mattingly pulled Adrian Gonzalez, his most consistent postseason hitter, for Dee Gordon, a pinch-runner who was quickly wasted. It was a decision that came back to haunt the Dodgers again and again during a game in which Gonzalez's bat was sorely missed in several extra-inning situations.
Then, in the 13th inning, Mattingly let his best reliever, Kenley Jansen, sit in the bullpen while Chris Withrow, pitching his second inning, allowed a one-out single and walk. Jansen finally came into the game and promptly allowed a game-winning single to Carlos Beltran, whose line drive to right field rocked the house.
Even as the Cardinals were celebrating on the field, though, once again the focus was on the Dodgers dugout.
"If the rest of the series is like this game, it should be a pretty good one," Mattingly said.
Good for who?
The situation that initially bewitched Mattingly occurred in the eighth inning of a 2-2 game. Gonzalez, who came in batting .333 in this postseason, led off with a walk. The plodding first baseman was immediately replaced by speedy pinch-runner Gordon.
Mattingly was obviously betting that Gordon could score in that inning and the Dodgers eventually wouldn't miss Gonzalez's bat. It was a questionable bet under any circumstances — it was first-guessed here — but it would have been a much safer bet if Gonzalez had been on second base, the usual spot for such substitutions.
At first base, Gordon, unless he stole second, was vulnerable to a grounder. He didn't have a chance to steal second. On the third pitch, Yasiel Puig hit a grounder and forced Gordon at second base, and the switch was for nothing.
"Well, it's one of those [situations] that you've got to shoot your bullet when you get a chance," Mattingly said. "If we don't use him there and the next guy hits the ball in the gap and he doesn't score and we don't score there, we're going to say why didn't you use Dee? . . . You get a guy on in that inning, and you take a shot at scoring a run."
But the controversy was only beginning. The move plagued the Dodgers for the next hour.
With Gonzalez out of the lineup, they would have to spend the rest of the game with bench guy Michael Young playing first base. Young is a professional hitter who nonetheless had had only three at-bats this postseason. And if you thought this would put the focus on him, you were right.
Two innings after the move, with the score still tied in the 10th, Mark Ellis tripled with one out, a line drive that skipped past center fielder Jon Jay. Up stepped Hanley Ramirez, but the Cardinals happily walked the hot slugger to get to — you guessed it — Young.
It should have been Gonzalez taking a line-drive swing, but instead it was Young hitting a lazy fly ball to shallow right-center field. Carlos Beltran made the catch and threw it to home plate on one bounce, far ahead of Ellis attempting to score. The replays showed that in the ensuing collision, catcher Yadier Molina actually tagged Ellis with his arm instead of his hand, but in that situation, with the ball arriving so far ahead of Ellis, the runner is never going to get that call.
That wasn't a real controversy. The real controversy remained the presence of Young instead of Gonzalez, which bit the Dodgers again in the 12th after Carl Crawford led off with a single. Mattingly then caused another stir by ordering Ellis bunt Crawford to second even though it meant Ramirez would come up with first base open.
"We've got to put ourselves in a chance to score a run," Mattingly said.
Yes, the thrilled Cardinals again walked Ramirez to get to Young. And, yes, once again Young ended the inning with a double play, this time on a grounder to shortstop Pete Kozma.
Now if the Dodgers can't win here with Clayton Kershaw today, it will quickly get late. So went a rare long postseason day for the Dodgers, and another long postseason day for their manager.