Dodgers must continue to compete

LOS ANGELES – Don Mattingly walks through the Dodgers clubhouse often enough before games that it's not much of a big deal. It's when a player follows him into and out of his office that you take notice and start asking questions.

Last week that meant Ted Lilly was being summoned to a meeting that ultimately ended in him being designated for assignment -- because he wasn't keen on pitching out of the bullpen in the minor leagues -- with about half of his $13.2 million salary remaining.

So on Tuesday afternoon, when new reliever Carlos Marmol happened to walk out of the clubhouse a couple of steps behind Mattingly, you couldn't help but wonder if something was up. The erratic, sometimes electric reliever had a rough go of it in his first two appearances with the Dodgers after coming over from the Cubs and, well, the way the Dodgers are charging hard for a postseason spot these days, it wouldn't have been shocking if the club had that short of a leash.

Now, it turned out absolutely nothing was doing with Marmol. It could've just been a coincidence that he followed Mattingly out. He's still with the club, and they're hoping he can contribute down the stretch. But the fact that it was so easy to leap to that conclusion speaks to the competitive environment within the walls of the Dodger clubhouse these days.

You get a chance or two, and then the next guy is in. You're either helping the team, or you're sitting. And in Lilly's case, you get DFA'd regardless of the financial cost to ownership.

Gone are the injury-riddled days from earlier in the season when Mattingly had few options (other than tinkering at the margins or with the batting order) to shake things up. If someone's not producing or playing the way he ought to be, someone else will.

"These new owners don't mess around," said Dodgers reliever Kenley Jansen, who replaced a struggling Brandon League as the team's closer in mid-June and has since stabilized the team's bullpen. "They want to win. That's fine by me. I like the pressure. All I want to do is win, too."

This would all be a neat and tidy story about how competition has helped fuel the Dodgers torrid July except for the fact that Mattingly is essentially under the same microscope his players are. The Dodgers have an option on the final year of Mattingly's contract next season, but have yet to pick it up or to broach the subject of signing him to a new one.

They aren't going to until after the season, either.

"I'm not going to talk about any of those subjects until after the season," Dodgers president Stan Kasten said Tuesday.

That quote might read a bit harsher than it was intended. You should know Kasten dislikes talking publicly about any contract situation. It's a personal policy, not a commentary on Mattingly, who seemed to be hanging on by a thread just 40 games into the season, but is now a strong candidate for manager of the year honors after piloting the Dodgers' resurgence.

Still, the fact that the matter will remain unsettled for the remainder of the season means that Mattingly's future will be determined in the same competitive environment in which his players find themselves now.

Will it be a distraction? Will it be a rallying cry? Time will tell.

Earlier in the year, Mattingly's tenuous status seemed to help light a fire under his team when things reached their nadir in late May during a three-game series in Milwaukee.

"It was definitely us kind of saying to each other, 'We're going to lose a good man here because of our failures,' " Dodgers catcher A.J. Ellis said. "We can't use our health as an excuse. Whoever is in the room, whatever 25-man roster we have, it's up to them to step up and not just save our manager, but save our season. He shouldn't ever be a fall guy for our mistakes. He's been the same consistent person since I met him back in 2008. He's always optimistic, always looking for the good in people, never negative. If you can't play for that, you can't play for anybody."

Guys like Ellis weren't the problem, however. If everybody gave as consistent an effort as he has, the Dodgers would never have fallen into the hole they did.

But they did fall, and there needed to be some reckoning done. So for the first and likely last time, Mattingly kicked a little butt in a very public manner.

"We're last place in the National League West. Last year, at this point, we were playing a lineup that basically has nobody in it, that fights and competes and battles you every day for every inch of the field," Mattingly said on May 22 in Milwaukee.

"We talk about it as an organization. We've got to find the club with talent that will fight and compete like the club that doesn't have that talent."

A few days later, he held an impassioned team meeting to make sure the same message echoed off the clubhouse walls and not just through the press.

"You shouldn't need to talk to your club that often," Mattingly said of that meeting. "But sometimes you have to, to make sure the way you feel is what they hear."

What effect did all that have on the team?

"There was some need for that," Ellis said. "There was some things that had kind of been able to slide, but had been kept under the radar just because that's kind of Donnie's style -- everything will police itself."

"But he definitely came out in that [Milwaukee] series and let it be known what his expectations were, and then when we came home afterwards, let it be known in this team meeting we had that, 'This is who I am and the type of team I want.' "

Shortly thereafter, a guy by the name of Yasiel Puig came up and hammered home the point, giving the club a spark and making anyone who didn't play as hard as he did every night look bad. Hanley Ramirez clobbered home the point, too, as he came back from the disabled list and started crushing the ball and any doubts about his passion for the game.

"When Yasiel came in, it created a competition for spots," Mattingly said. "And I think that's a good thing when you have to fight for what you get."

With the expectations set and chips to play with, it falls on Mattingly to be the enforcer now. After three years of mostly bailing water out of the boat, it's a new role for him. But going forward, with this type of team, it's the evolution he needs to make.

"He's much more assertive now," Ellis said. "He's very confident in his decision-making. He's definitely growing every day as a manager, and it's great to see, because he's somebody you love playing for."

By just about every conventional measure, Mattingly has done more than enough this season to merit having his option year picked up already. He's kept a steady hand on the unsteadiest of teams and created an environment where the Dodgers collection of high-priced stars can thrive.

But if there's one thing that's become clear these days: It's hard for any Dodger to get all that comfortable.

Those that produce, play. Those that don't, get replaced. The competition is good for everyone.

That's both why the Dodgers got rolling and why things will remain very interesting all season long.