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Playoff scrutiny intense for managers

BALTIMORE -- Major League Baseball's division series action proved that big payrolls and star power can be overrated, while leaving plenty of managerial roadkill in its wake. Judging from the always measured and thoughtful public sentiment on Twitter, Brad Ausmus has no clue how to run a bullpen, Don Mattingly's ability to make bad decisions knows no bounds, and Matt Williams isn't equipped to run a convenience store, never mind a team with World Series aspirations.

It wasn't all bad, of course. San Francisco's Bruce Bochy and Baltimore's Buck Showalter emerged from the first round more revered than ever, while Kansas City's Ned Yost escaped relatively unscathed with a three-game sweep of the Los Angeles Angels.

Baseball's next installment of "Rate-A-Manager" will play out over the next 10 days. And nowhere will the social media feedback be stronger or the contrast more pronounced than in the American League Championship Series.

The Baltimore Orioles and Kansas City Royals, unheralded teams playing an inspired brand of baseball, have brought pride to their cities and a jolt of energy to their fan bases. Baltimore hits home runs by the carload; Kansas City relies on speed; and both teams play exceptional defense and boast lockdown bullpens. Adam Jones is the most quotable player left in the postseason, and Kansas City's Jarrod Dyson and Terrance Gore are fun, energetic speedsters who send a buzz through the crowd anytime they're on base.

But in a series that has a chance to be tight, the focus ultimately will fall on the managers. Based on the pre-series analyses, this has a chance to be a mismatch of Secretariat vs. Mr. Ed proportions.

Showalter, the front-runner for AL Manager of the Year, has gone from respected to beloved while leading the Orioles to two playoff appearances in three seasons. He's hailed in baseball circles for his attentiveness to detail, mastery at running a bullpen, and ability to get the most out of stars and role players alike.

Showalter was in top form in Baltimore's division series sweep of the Detroit Tigers. When he wasn't making matchup magic with his pen, he was summoning Delmon Young to deliver the pinch-hit knockout blow in Game 2. Showalter's signature moment of the series came in the ninth inning of the finale, when he defied convention and had closer Zach Britton intentionally walk Detroit's Nick Castellanos to put the potential winning run on base. Naturally, pinch hitter Hernan Perez followed with a double-play grounder to complete the Baltimore sweep.

At this point, Showalter's players are well enough acquainted with his preparation to know he leaves nothing to chance.

"He doesn't do anything without a reason," said Baltimore shortstop J.J. Hardy. "When he makes a move like that, it's nice that we don't have to question it. I don't think there's one guy in our locker room who goes, 'What is he doing?' It's nice that we can just do our jobs and never worry about what he's going to do. We feel like we're never going to get out-managed."

In this, his fourth big league stop, Showalter has shed his old reputation as a micromanager whose act wears thin once he brings a team to the cusp of contention. Yost, in contrast, is still trying to discard the negative labels he picked up from his first managerial stop in Milwaukee. He's still perceived as hyperintense and uptight, even though he has gone to great lengths to accept his players for what they are not what he wants them to be.

Yost takes his biggest hits for his in-game strategy. Pedro Martinez eviscerated him on TV for using starter Yordano Ventura in relief during Kansas City's wild-card victory over the Oakland Athletics, and Yost has been a social media piñata for his reliance on bunting and other old-school (some might say flat-earth) tendencies.

Yost has a reputation for irascibility, but he has made strides to improve his relationship with the media and do a better job of explaining his in-game decisions. In a 15-minute media session Thursday, he gave thoughtful responses to a number of questions -- including a discourse on the criticisms managers are subject to in October.

"The scrutiny is the scrutiny," Yost said. "I've come to find out I can put a player in the ballgame and if he gets a base hit or a big out, nobody is going to say a word. If I put that same player in the ballgame and he strikes out or gives up a hit, then all the second-guessing comes down on you. I've learned that it's neither right or wrong, most of the time. You made the right decision. It either works out or it doesn't work out."

Much of the debate around managers in October comes down to the sense of urgency on display. In the regular season, a manager's main responsibility is keeping the clubhouse running smoothly, setting a positive tone and navigating the ups and downs. He might refrain from using a reliever for a third straight day with a long-term view in mind, or start a left-handed hitter against a lefty pitcher to build his confidence. Strategy is important, of course, but it isn't scrutinized ad nauseam when there's another game tomorrow and the national media aren't paying attention.

"I would say the tactical stuff is probably 20 percent of it," said Royals outfielder Raul Ibanez. "You're managing people more than you're managing situations. You have to build players up and communicate with them and put them in situations to succeed. Just look at the young star players here who have developed under Ned. He's helped navigate them through the storms of major league baseball really well."

Yost learned the art of managing as a coach in Atlanta under Bobby Cox, which meant staying loyal to players and refraining from public criticism at all costs. This year, third baseman Mike Moustakas was one of the main beneficiaries of his seemingly endless well of patience. Despite hitting .212 and playing his way back to Triple-A Omaha for a brief stretch in May, Moustakas appeared in 140 games and logged 500 plate appearances for the Royals. He rewarded Yost with a pair of home runs against the Angels in the division series.

"He stood by my side," Moustakas said. "When I was 0-for-20 to start the year and I was hitting a buck sixty, he always threw me out there and put me in the lineup every day. You couldn't ask for any more. When he had my back with the media and said, 'This kid is gonna be all right,' that means a lot for a player."

In the postseason, sometimes it's all in the presentation. Matt Williams dug himself a hole in Washington's series-ending defeat to San Francisco by declining to use Stephen Strasburg, Tyler Clippard or Drew Storen in a must-win game. Then he compounded the misstep by telling reporters he pitched Matt Thornton and Aaron Barrett in the decisive seventh inning because "those are our seventh-inning guys." The observation made Williams seem oblivious to the circumstances, and prompted even Nationals analyst Ray Knight to go to town on his mistakes.

Yost said he began preparing for the urgency of the postseason in mid-September, when he began using pinch runners more often, inserting late-game defensive replacements and making minor alterations in the way he used closer Greg Holland and setup men Kelvin Herrera and Wade Davis. But if it's the sixth or seventh inning and the Orioles have a rally brewing and Yost picks the wrong guy to snuff it out, he's going to have to wear it. In October, managers with suspect reputations don't get the benefit of the doubt.

"You're never gonna please everybody," Ibanez said. "I think it was Winston Churchill who said, 'An appeaser is a person that feeds a crocodile hoping it will eat him last.'"

In his quest to avoid being eaten by Buck Showalter, Yost will have to stay true to his convictions and hope his players prove him correct. If the Royals lose to the Orioles, chances are he'll receive the bulk of the blame. And if they win, some Kansas City fans will continue to insist that they advanced in spite of him. He can probably live with that scenario.