A manager has to create an atmosphere in the clubhouse that allows his players to relax, be themselves and perform on the field. He has to have his players’ backs and shield them from the media and the front office, and above all he has to have their trust. That’s the formula Joe Torre brought to The Bronx as manager of the New York Yankees in 1996. Torre’s deft handling his clubhouse and the way he served as a shield from egomaniacal owner George Steinbrenner and the cannibalistic New York media allowed a talented but underachieving roster to become a championship dynasty.
Others have followed in the Torre mold, including Terry Francona in Boston and Cleveland; Charlie Manuel in Philadelphia; Davey Johnson in New York with the Mets, in Baltimore and Washington; Clint Hurdle in Pittsburgh; Ron Washington in Texas; to name but a few. Each of the aforementioned has been second-guessed about game strategy at one time or another, but each turned difficult clubhouses into peaceful workplaces for their players, who responded by playing championship-caliber baseball. That’s not a coincidence.
Game strategy ranks a distant second. If X’s and O’s mattered more than managing the clubhouse, Bobby Valentine would be a Hall of Famer instead of a serial train wreck. At some point, though, every manager has to make crucial decisions during the course of a game, decisions that can lead directly to wins or losses. At what point does a lack of strategic acumen become a detriment?
That is the question to ponder when considering the curious case of Los Angeles Dodgers manager Don Mattingly. Mattingly has a big reputation as a calming influence in the clubhouse. He steered the team through a turbulent first two months of the season as a raft of injured players returned to the lineup. His players seem to recognize his steady hand and love playing for him because of it. Suffice it to say, however, that Game 2 of the National League Division Series in Atlanta was not Donnie Softball’s greatest moment as a big league skipper.
In three seasons as manager in LA, Mattingly’s in-game moves have left many observers scratching their heads in wonder. Opposing skippers have managed circles around him at times, especially Bruce Bochy of the rival San Francisco Giants. No one, however, ever played Mattingly the way the Atlanta Braves’ Fredi Gonzalez did Friday night in a crucial, series-tying 4-3 victory for the Braves.
Let’s start by establishing that the Braves may well have won this game without Mattingly’s assistance. After falling apart like a state-fair kitchen appliance on Thursday, the Bravos played a superb game Friday night, especially defensively and on the mound. Starting pitcher Mike Minor outdueled Dodgers ace righthander Zach Greinke, and Atlanta nursed a 2-1 lead into the seventh inning.
The game got away from the Dodgers in the seventh. Almost without trying, Gonzalez maneuvered Mattingly into forsaking two very favorable pitcher-hitter matchups in order to get a left-on-left matchup against Jason Heyward, one of the most dangerous hitters in the Atlanta lineup. Mattingly could have had hard-throwing righthander Chris Withrow — who came into October on a roll — pitch to Jose Constanza. That’s right, THE Jose Constanza. Perhaps thinking the lefty-hitting Constanza was Roger Maris circa 1961, Mattingly immediately went to his bullpen for struggling lefthander Paco Rodriguez. Gonzalez responded by yanking Constanza in favor of Reed Johnson, a righthanded hitter. This time, Mattingly apparently mistook the banjo-hitting Johnson for Mickey Mantle and had Rodriguez intentionally walk him to load the bases for Heyward. Predictably, Heyward hit a two-run single up the middle for a 4-1 lead, ballgame.
Opposing managers should drool at the thought of facing Constanza or Johnson in a big situation. Mattingly got them both to the plate in the same inning — the same at-bat, no less! — of a postseason game, and passed on both to face Heyward. With the bases loaded. All because he wanted a left-on-left matchup.
In 236 career plate appearances, Constanza has a .278 batting average with six extra-base hits. In 2013, he batted .258 with no walks, no extra-base hits, no nothing, in 31 plate appearances. Johnson, an 11-year veteran and a .282 career hitter, also was a non-entity in 2013, hitting .244 with eight extra-base hits and 11 RBIs in 136 trips.
Heyward had an up-and-down season and missed a month after taking a fastball in the face in August, but he is a dangerous hitter with a bunch of power — 99 doubles, 73 homers and a career .443 slugging percentage in less than four full seasons. He hit 22 doubles and 14 homers in 104 games in 2013.
The Dodgers entered this series heavily favored and still hold the upper hand, with two of the remaining three games in Los Angeles and Clayton Kershaw — the best pitcher on the planet — waiting as a fallback should the series go all the way to a fifth game in Atlanta. After facing Kershaw and Greinke, possibly the two best starters in the NL, the first two games, the pitching matchups are much more even for Atlanta in Games 3 and 4 at Dodger Stadium. Normally the road team wants a split in the first two games of a series. All things considered, the Braves had to feel good going to the West Coast with a split at home.
The Braves might have won Game 2 anyway, but the giftwrapping, complete with greeting card, ribbons and a big bow, were compliments of Don Mattingly.