Just as happened when the Washington Nationals were eliminated from the races, and the Matt Williams execution watch went from acute to get-it-over-with already, so has it been for Don Mattingly from just about the moment the Los Angeles Dodgers got bumped to one side Thursday night. Anything from speculating on when to speculating on successors, you name it.
And the sad part is that Donnie Baseball may have signed his own execution papers with his performance in Game Five of the division series the New York Mets snatched from him. Mattingly’s reputation as an in-game tactician was never exactly very high, and he was out-managed in the division series by a man whose own in-game tactical thinking has often been second- and third-guessed.
But the manner in which Mattingly approached and managed Game Five has a lot of Dodger watchers shaking their heads.
It only began with Mattingly starting Yasmani Grandal behind the plate. Veteran A.J. Ellis isn’t without his flaws, but in a win-or-be-gone game why on earth would you start a catcher who ended up 0-for-his-last-94, could barely swing a bat at all with a shoulder about to undergo surgery, over a veteran who could handle Zack Greinke at least as well?
It only continued with Mattingly slotting Casey Seager in the number two hole and moving Enrique (Kike) Hernandez to the seventh spot—after Hernandez proved the ignition switch at the top of the Game Four lineup. Seager is a promising player and made a big impression in his first month and a half, but not playing the hot hand at the top probably hurt big.
But the exclamation point pounded down big when Mattingly put the overshift on against lefthanded hitter Lucas Duda in the top of the fourth, with Daniel Murphy on first, including moving Justin Turner over behind second base and leaving Seager at shortstop but shaded enough to his left, with Greinke presumably and somewhat wrongly assigned to cover third base.
Mattingly wasn’t necessarily wrong to defend against Duda with the overshift. And who knows what coursed through the manager’s mind over what happened next. Duda wrung out a walk. Murphy trotted to second. Travis d’Arnaud coming up. The Dodgers enjoying a 2-1 lead.
Then, in a split moment as he arrived at second base, Murphy noticed third base still left open and hit the accelerator pedal. Greinke took a few steps in the direction of third, but Seager moseyed toward second base as Murphy took off. The Dodgers were caught completely flatfoot as Murphy took third (why on earth did he think about sliding?) and had practically no answer when Murphy came home promptly on d’Arnaud’s sacrifice fly.
“We made a mental error letting him take the extra base,” Greinke said after the game. “It was kind of a fluky thing. Mainly, Murphy did a great job.”
Enough people may think that’s all the more reason to send Mattingly job hunting. But in fairness Mattingly didn’t cause the real flaws in this year’s Dodgers, who looked great enough on paper together. He might have been adroit at managing a clubhouse full of egos (and he probably got that from playing amidst such egos on those 1980s Yankee teams), but Mattingly didn’t cause the Dodger brain fart with Murphy approaching second.
Nor did Mattingly cause Andre Ethier’s brain fart on d’Arnaud’s sac fly. The ball careened into foul territory and Ethier’s experienced enough to know he could have save a run by letting the ball land. But he took, and Murphy tagged and scampered home with the tying run. Three innings later, Murphy answered Greinke’s challenge of a down and in fastball and drove it past the right field foul pole.
“I think he did a great job,” Howell said of Mattingly’s stewardship all season long. ”He handled the clubhouse and there were a lot of different situations that went down that he had to tackle that didn’t necessarily get out on the public. Here, it’s just one of those situations where we had such expectations, we didn’t get to the World Series, so it’s a fail. That’s a tough thing to put on him.”
It also wasn’t Mattingly’s bright idea to reach out at the non-waiver deadline and trade for four Atlanta discards who proved to be negligible Dodger pitchers at best, at least until Luis Avilan relieved Greinke in the seventh and got rid of Curtis Anderson for the side and before the Mets could do any more Game Five damage.
It wasn’t Mattingly’s idea to build a starting rotation composed of only three solid starters and a lot of question marks behind them. Nor was it Mattingly’s idea that the third of those men, Brett Anderson, should have been ambushed in Game Three after spending all season long pitching beyond the team’s hopes for him.
And Mattingly didn’t build a bullpen that consisted primarily of Chris Hatcher, J.P. Howell, and Kenley Jansen for the final innings but a collection of arsonists before them. Nor did he construct an offense that has some solid bats but who couldn’t find a way to bury an oddly vulnerable Jacob deGrom after prying two runs out of him in the bottom of the first Thursday night.
“We didn’t lose because of Donnie, like everybody says,” Hernandez insisted when talking to the Los Angeles Times. “We lost because we couldn’t score runs. Donnie has nothing to do with this. There’s no reason Donnie has to be fired.”
Mattingly can only hope general manager Andrew Friedman agrees with Hernandez.