DENVER -- It's kind of tough to blame Don Mattingly for what happened here Thursday night. But at the same time, it's kind of tough not to.
On the one hand, there is a reason the Los Angeles Dodgers seem to suffer far more than their share of devastating, late-inning, come-from-ahead losses, the latest being a 9-7 crusher at the hands of the Colorado Rockies at Coors Field. That reason is that their bullpen is, to be polite, a little shaky, even though it has been a lot better the past few weeks than it was in, say, April, when it was made up largely of a completely different group of people.
On the other hand, it was impossible not to ask the Dodgers' rookie manager in the minutes following one of the team's toughest defeats of the season whether he might not have stayed with his ace, Clayton Kershaw, a little too long on an evening when Kershaw was, again to be polite, something short of ace-like.
We saw the result when Mattingly finally did pull Kershaw: Scott Elbert and Mike MacDougal combined to face six batters and record one out, allowing all three of the runners Kershaw left them to score and each issuing a bases-loaded walk, turning what had been a safe-sounding, 7-3 lead into a deficit from which the Dodgers wouldn't recover. It was hard to watch. But then, so was watching Kershaw go back out for the start of that inning when he had barely survived the previous one. In the sixth, four Rockies in a row had reached base to slice a four-run Dodgers lead to 4-3, and only a borderline called third strike to Ryan Spilborghs with the tying run on third base had gotten Kershaw out of that jam.
Mattingly's answer was basically that he had asked Kershaw how he felt after the sixth -- a point when Kershaw's spot in the batting order was due to lead off the top of the seventh -- and based his decision on Kershaw's response.
"I checked with him before he hit to make sure he felt like he had kind of gotten it back together as far as what he wanted to do," Mattingly said.
Kershaw acknowledged he told Mattingly he was good to go. But Kershaw also seemed to hint he isn't the type to ever admit he's not.
"Physically, I have never felt bad on a pitch," said Kershaw, who also had hit a sixth- and seventh-inning wall in his previous start Saturday in Cincinnati. "I feel 100 percent every time I'm out there. I never feel tired. It's just one of those things. I have to figure out a way to finish off a game, especially with a 4-0 lead. The past two times out, I haven't done that, and it's especially frustrating."
There was one difference between Kershaw's middle-inning implosion against the Reds and this one: He spent the first five innings of that game absolutely dominating, giving up one hit, facing the minimum 15 batters and striking out nine of them. This time, despite shutting out the Rockies on two hits through five, Kershaw seemed shaky from the start, falling behind in counts, fighting through prolonged at-bats and even issuing an uncharacteristic four-pitch walk to Ty Wigginton to lead off the second.
Mattingly's decision not to pinch hit for Kershaw leading off the seventh actually proved sound for a few minutes, as Kershaw singled for the second time in the game to ignite a three-run rally that pushed the Dodgers' lead back to four runs. But when Kershaw went back out for the bottom half, even after he gave up back-to-back singles to Charlie Blackmon and Jose Morales to start the inning, Mattingly didn't budge from the corner of the dugout until Kershaw walked Eric Young to load the bases with nobody out.
Finally, Mattingly went to his bullpen, which has had to be sort of slapped together at a time when four of the relievers the Dodgers figured to count on heavily when the season began are all on the disabled list. Mattingly later conceded that if his relief corps was fully intact, he might have made an earlier decision with Kershaw.
"Obviously, if you feel like you're set up seven, eight and nine [innings], you know exactly what you want to do," Mattingly said. "But we're not really set up like that. With Kershaw, he was still around 90 pitches at the start of that inning. You trust him. Just because he had one rough inning in there, you feel like he had put it back together. I know he kind of struggled with his command all night long, but we trust him. He was our opening day starter and one of our best pitchers all year long."
If you'll forgive me for playing it safe, I have to say the results are inconclusive. Did Mattingly's decision to stick with Kershaw blow up in his face? Well, yeah, in that the Dodgers (29-35) suffered a galling defeat, leaving them in a last-place tie with the San Diego Padres in the National League West, 5 1/2 games behind the division-leading San Francisco Giants. But when he finally did take Kershaw out, that blew up, too.
The bottom line is this was a game the Dodgers should have won and didn't, and there were plenty of culprits. It wasn't Mattingly out there issuing all those ill-timed walks. But being a rookie manager is about learning on the fly, and you get the feeling that if a situation like this comes up again, even with Kershaw, Mattingly will handle it a little differently next time.
Tony Jackson covers the Dodgers for ESPNLosAngeles.com.