Don Mattingly is managing his finest season

Don Mattingly is on track to once again lead the Dodgers to a better record than the previous year. AP Photo/Jae C. Hong

LOS ANGELES -- He works with a clubhouse full of players that more than one person who works in the room has termed “dysfunctional,” though the results would seem to indicate otherwise. He has been juggling egos all season long, with four multi-millionaire outfielders for three spots.

His best player, Yasiel Puig, is, by some accounts, the worst base runner in Major League Baseball. His slugging shortstop, Hanley Ramirez, is, by many accounts, the league’s worst fielder at his position. His starting rotation, the heartbeat of the club, has been under duress lately, with three pitchers out injured and another pitching hurt.

With all of that, the Dodgers could finish with their best season yet under manager Don Mattingly by going a manageable 19-11 in these final 30 games. In his fourth season as a manager, Mattingly seems to be growing into the job primarily by being himself.

Under Mattingly, the Dodgers will have improved in each of his four season, from 82 wins, to 86 wins, to 92 wins to whatever they manage this year. If the Dodgers win the NL West -- and they have a 4 ½ game lead with a favorable late schedule -- it would be the team’s second season in a row atop the division.

If late-game pitching moves aren’t his greatest strength, then being in touch with the emotional and mental state of the club might be. Mattingly seems to fight himself at times after games, reminding himself to be less publically critical of his players. Some of those frustrations would seem to come with the territory for a man who won an MVP trophy and a batting title, was picked for six All-Star Games and finished with a .307 batting average. It was a career just one notch below Hall of Fame standards.

The two times his frustrations did bubble over, it seemed to have a positive impact on the club.

The Dodgers were foundering under their first season of astronomical expectations two Mays ago, just 18-26 going into an afternoon game in Milwaukee. Fueled largely by a national column speculating that his end was near, Mattingly’s job status was the hot story of the day. Mattingly benched Andre Ethier and told reporters that morning he needed a lineup that would fight harder for wins.

“We're in last place in the National League West," he said. "Last year at this point, we played a lineup with nobody in it, but they fought, they competed and battled every inch. I felt like we got more out of our ability.”

Some Dodgers fans viewed Mattingly’s outburst as the act of a man desperate to save himself, but it worked. The Dodgers went 74-44 after that. While correlation shouldn’t be confused for causation (and Puig’s arrival didn’t hurt), none of his players ever complained about his comments openly. The team seemed to play with more passion in the ensuing months. Uninspired teams don’t rattle off 42 wins in 50 games, as the Dodgers did at one point.

Mattingly had a similar nadir, and a similar outburst of candor, this past June, after watching two mediocre Chicago White Sox pitchers shut his team down at home. In this case, the team was basically treading water, one game over .500, but Mattingly had grown tired of the relentless questions about which of his star outfielders he would bench and the sense that personal agendas were taking over the club.

Before that June 4 game, Mattingly summoned the spirit of longtime manager Tommy Lasorda and said he sensed a lack of “all pulling in one direction.” A couple of hours later, soft-tossing lefty John Danks held the Dodgers to two hits in 7 1/3 innings and the Dodgers fell eight games behind the San Francisco Giants. And Mattingly wasn’t as diplomatic. In fact, he wasn’t even close to diplomatic.

The more angry Mattingly gets, the quieter he seems to become, a departure from Lasorda. In a quiet interview room, Mattingly sounded at times sarcastic, at times disgusted, discussing the state of his team that night.

"I mean, I really think you should talk to them. I’m tired of answering the questions, honestly,” Mattingly said. When someone asked him if it was a matter of playing at home, where they have struggled all season, Mattingly said, “Well, home, away, whatever, I don’t know that that’s got anything to do with it. It’s just being basically s----. We’re just not that good."

That evening, several of the team’s veteran position players declined interview requests. After initially declining to talk, shortstop Hanley Ramirez said, “I don’t know what to say. I still go out, hustle, do the best I can. Of course you’ve got to be mad. We’re not doing nothing right now, so we’ve got to start playing better. Everybody should be angry the way we’re playing right now."

Once again, the team’s results improved after Mattingly’s eruption. The Dodgers won four of their next five games and 17 of their next 24. They’ve played 12 ½ games better than the Giants in the intervening weeks.

Mattingly has adjusted his style over the years to fit his teams. With better hitters, he now bunts less. With a disappointing lack of power (the Dodgers are 26th in the majors in home runs), he runs more (they lead the majors in steals).

Mattingly seems to have learned to insulate himself better from the whims of public opinion. Many fans were frustrated with Mattingly’s faith in left fielder Carl Crawford earlier this month. Crawford was hitting .234 on Aug. 9 and many Dodgers fans, partial to the homegrown outfielder, Ethier, wondered why Mattingly kept putting Crawford in the lineup. Mattingly trusted his knowledge of hitting and said he could see that Crawford had a chance to break out of his slump because his swing was sound. The numbers were skewed, Mattingly thought, by a number of hard-hit balls that went right to fielders.

In the 12 games since, Crawford has been the Dodgers’ hottest hitter, batting .459 with six stolen bases and 11 runs scored.

The Dodgers still haven’t qualified for the playoffs, of course, and there figure to be crises large and small for Mattingly to navigate between now and whenever this season ends. Pitcher Clayton Kershaw may have raised the stakes for Mattingly and the team a bit when he declared it was “World Series or bust,” during a national radio interview.

Because of the Dodgers’ payroll, Mattingly figures to get scant credit for whatever the Dodgers achieve and much of the blame if they come up short of the World Series. Mattingly has a pretty good idea how things work in a market this demanding. His mentor, Joe Torre, finished third and fifth, respectively, in Manager of the Year balloting in his final two championship seasons.

But there are challenges, largely unseen, in managing teams brimming with talent and filled with bloated salaries. It takes a certain patience and the occasional lack of it, to keep things going smoothly.