LOS ANGELES -- The small blue book rests on Don Mattingly’s desk in his office, never far from his fingertips. He often finds himself flipping through it before games, between meetings and after games.
He doesn’t know how many times he has read “Wooden,” John Wooden’s book of observations and reflections on and off the court, but he probably has most of the 201 pages memorized by now.
He will often quote Wooden to reporters and players and has been thinking a lot about Wooden’s teachings in recent weeks as he tries to find out what kind of team he has.
“One of Wooden’s beliefs is that our job (as coaches) is to get the absolute most out of our team,” Mattingly said. “What that ends up being, we don’t know. If we get that and that’s not good enough then I don’t really know what you do with that. Then you have to continue as an organization to make decisions to get better.”
Mattingly wasn’t quite sure what to make of the Dodgers’ 5-3 comeback win over the Philadelphia Phillies in 12 innings on Wednesday. Matt Kemp’s walk-off, two-run homer could be seen as a turning point for a team that had lost four games in a row and fallen three games behind the San Francisco Giants in the NL West. Then again, it could also be nothing more than a momentary stopgap before a grueling 10-game trip that could make or break their season.
“I don’t know what this says about us,” Mattingly said. “It was a nice win for us.”
It was easy for Mattingly not to get too excited about one of the Dodgers’ more exciting wins of the season. He has seen firsthand how leads, games and standings can change on a single pitch, error or swing. The fact is, Mattingly simply doesn’t know what kind of team he has yet and trying to compare the Dodgers’ strong start to their recent struggles is a futile effort at this point.
“Before the break is gone,” Mattingly said. “After the break we got Matt and Andre (Ethier) back and we’re starting to get our team back together. But when (you lose) after the break, it’s one of those things that is frustrating. A week from now this thing could look totally different if we win five of seven or something like that. No matter how it looks right now we have to get the ball going in the other direction.”
During the Dodgers’ recent slide, when they lost seven of eight games, Mattingly kept reminding his players they were not far from where they wanted to be. They were simply not getting the same breaks they were earlier in the season when they always found ways to win close games late.
“It wears you down, there’s no doubt,” Mattingly said. “You try to figure out what’s going on. When you get right down to it and look it, these were the same games we were winning earlier in the season. How many have we given up late? We just haven’t been able to win those games. The reality still bothers you, but the way the games are being played is the same. It goes back to, are we going to execute, are we going to get that big hit and are we going to get that big out? That’s what we haven’t been able to do.”
The Dodgers were able to do just that Wednesday, and after the game players talked about the mood of the dugout beginning to change in the 10th inning when for the first time in a while they could sense things finally going their way.
“The whole homestand we didn’t get a bunch of hits together like that and when we did we started feeling good,” Dodgers shortstop Luis Cruz said. “Everything changed in the dugout and players started cheering and I think that it was a big moment for us. I think it’s a big thing for us and it’s going to change everything and we’re going to start playing like we did today.”
The way the Dodgers played Wednesday has been both a recipe for success and failure this season. Sure, the Dodgers won in extra innings, but they also wasted a one-run, five-hit outing from Clayton Kershaw as they were only able to muster one run through nine innings. The Dodgers are a team that has often been in a one-run games going into the seventh inning and will give their bullpen very little wiggle room to win the game. The Dodgers this season are 19-17 in one-run games, 6-7 in two-run games and 3-36 when trailing after seven innings.
“There’s got to be opportunities to be able to make mistakes and still win the game,” Mattingly said. “Every time we hand the ball to the bullpen in the seventh inning we have a one-run lead and it’s like, ‘OK, shut them down for three innings.’ We have to be able to tack on a run here and tack on a run there to give them a little bit of breathing room. We’ve lost games late, but we can’t expect our bullpen to come into the game and shut them out.”
Tacking on a run here and there has been far easier said than done for the Dodgers this season. Kemp’s walk-off homer was his first since April 30 and only the Dodgers’ fourth since the All-Star break. As Mattingly puts together his lineup every night, he knows this team will look drastically different next year and would have looked drastically different if the team were sold in the offseason as opposed to just before Opening Day. That doesn’t change anything this season, but he knows no matter how this upcoming trip and season plays out, it is all one big evaluation for the future of the team moving forward now.
“A lot of this club was built in a different time,” said Mattingly, who spoke with Dodgers president Stan Kasten and owner Mark Walter after the game. “If this ownership had been in place at the end of last season, this would look like a different club probably, but it wasn’t. This club was built in a different time so you have to evaluate it. Is Kenley (Jansen) that guy (at closer)? Can he be that guy? If not, then who do you slot in and is he championship caliber? Just because a guy is a closer right now, is he a championship closer? What are we here for at the end of the day?
“In talking to our ownership, they want to win a championship and they’re going to do whatever they can do to win a championship so we’re always evaluating. So, if it’s Dee Gordon, if it’s Kenley, if it’s Kershaw, if it’s Kemp, is this a championship team? Those are the decisions the organization will make at the end of the year.”