If we’ve learned anything about Don Mattingly in the past couple of months, it’s that he’s not against taking a walk. He wore out a path from the dugout to the pitchers’ mound after the Dodgers got into a pennant race for the first time in his managerial tenure.
In a 12-inning game against the St. Louis Cardinals, Mattingly set a Dodgers record by using 10 pitchers. When Chris Capuano’s stuff looked soggy on the second-to-last game of the season, Mattingly yanked him after three innings -- though he’d allowed just two runs, both on solo home runs. He used reliever Ronald Belisario in four straight games near the end, testing the elasticity of his ligaments and tendons.
Part of being a good manager is being willing to hurt your players’ feelings, something Mattingly learned in the past month or so, and making quick pitching changes doesn’t make you popular.
“When you pull a guy after 4 2/3 [innings] and he’s got 90 pitches -- he feels like he’s got plenty in the tank, he wants to be the guy to get that next out -- he’s not very happy with you,” Mattingly said. “But you can’t worry about that. You can talk about it the next day with him and give him your reasoning.
“They may like it and they may not like it.”
There are disciplinarian, old-school managers left in the game, though their numbers are dwindling. There are laid-back, player-friendly managers, too. No matter what their interpersonal style, though, the good ones leave the impression with their players that they're in charge.
You could sense Mattingly’s grip on the team tightening as the season wound down, perhaps driven by his frustration with the team’s underachievement in the fateful month, shortly after the biggest trade in franchise history.
On Sept. 26 in San Diego, Mattingly finally had seen enough. He called a team meeting and, according to his players, let them know they would be held accountable some way or another for their uninspired play.
"He called us all on the carpet and kind of put us in a spot,” said catcher A.J. Ellis.
Said pitcher Chris Capuano, “I think everyone kind of really responded after that and gave great effort."
The Dodgers front office put Mattingly in a more difficult spot than it first appeared when it effectively ripped off one-third of the team photo and spliced in nine new players with late-season trades. Mattingly had helped foster a spirit of overachieving in the early weeks of the season, but after those trades, expectations were that the Dodgers could walk into the playoffs. They did the opposite, going 11-17 immediately after the big Aug. 25 trade with the Boston Red Sox.
You could argue that Mattingly needed to show a bit more urgency earlier to jolt a hibernating offense back to life. But in the final weeks of a season, most managers would rely on their best players to come up with the spark. That didn’t happen after Matt Kemp slammed into an outfield wall and went into a massive slump and when Clayton Kershaw missed a couple of starts with a hip ailment.
It was exacerbated when Adrian Gonzalez had trouble adjusting to the expectations that come with his first major-league in-season trade. He was homerless in 33 of his 35 games as a Dodger.
When a team begins to sputter in the clutch, a manager’s questionable decisions become lightning rods for fans’ disappointment. Mattingly’s moment of scrutiny came Tuesday night, when he intentionally walked Angel Pagan to get to the hottest hitter in the league, Marco Scutaro. It didn’t work out when Scutaro hit a two-out, two-run double. Mattingly said later he made the move because Scutaro was 2-for-19 in his career against the pitcher, Jamey Wright.
Eventually, if a manager has enough success, people tend to forget those moments. It’s rarely mentioned any more that Mike Scioscia let Brendan Donnelly pitch to Bernie Williams in the eighth inning of Game 1 in the 2002 ALCS though Troy Percival was warmed up and ready to go.
Williams hit the home run that proved the game winner. Why isn’t it often mentioned these days? Because the Angels won the World Series.
Next season, if the Dodgers have the team they think they have, Mattingly can sit back and let his players make him look good. If not, he’ll have to continue to learn to be unpopular.