LOS ANGELES -- It's baseball's postseason, which means that every day we're reminded of the one ironclad rule of managing: The only correct move is the one that works.
October is a tough month for managers and umpires. The men in those professions can never be right often enough, because neither is allowed to be wrong, ever.
Dodgers manager Don Mattingly is no stranger to this. His team tends to play close playoff games, so he's often called upon to make tough decisions when it comes to his starting pitchers. It doesn't seem to matter which way he decides, though -- he's either leaving someone in too long or taking someone out too soon. He's got the kind of luck that makes everyone want to give him a 10-foot berth in the dugout. It's a wonder they agree to fly in the same plane.
When Mattingly removed Clayton Kershaw with two outs and the bases loaded in the seventh inning of Game 1 of the NLDS on Friday night, it wasn't hard to convince yourself Mattingly was making a lucid, rational move. Kershaw had walked the bases loaded, thrown 113 pitches, it was hot, the Mets were rolling the lineup through for the fourth time, and David Wright was coming up and he's murdered lefties this year (13-for-37 -- small sample size alert!). In other words, it's not like Mattingly just decided to take a walk and figured it might as well be toward the mound.
Even Kershaw, who generally treats Mattingly's trips to the mound like visits from door-to-door magazine salesmen, said the three walks left him without a compelling counterargument. Catcher A.J. Ellis said, "That's my guy out there on the mound, but we didn't have much of a leg to stand on when you walk the bases loaded."
It went down with the Mets leading 1-0. Pedro Baez jogged in from the pen bouncing in the wake of a sellout crowd's appreciation for Kershaw, and six pitches into his night Wright smacked a two-run single up the middle to give the Mets all they needed in a 3-1 win. And so Mattingly -- who was wrong last year when he allowed Kershaw to stay in long enough to allow Matt Carpenter's three-run double in the seventh inning of Game 1 of the NLDS against the Cardinals -- decided not to be wrong the same way this time around.
Problem is, Mattingly was taking out a great pitcher -- a pitcher who had thrown extremely well through six, a pitcher who had missed by maybe three inches on a nasty 3-2 fastball to Curtis Granderson, a pitcher with something to prove in the postseason -- and brought in Baez, who does a lot of things exceedingly well but does not have the benefit of being Kershaw.
Maybe this is a hint: When it happened, when Mattingly walked to the mound with his penguin's lean and took the ball, the Mets weren't hoping they could get one more crack at Kershaw. Granderson said, "I thought it would be a good thing for our righties, to be honest. Over the course of the game our righties had some really uncomfortable at-bats against him because of the way he can work the inside of the plate against them. I thought switching the sights would help us."
Mets manager Terry Collins, asked about the mood in the dugout, said, "Nobody stood up and cheered, but it's always nice to see him walk off the field."
Mattingly had thought it out, though. He and pitching coach Rick Honeycutt figuratively circled Wright in the batting order before the inning started. If Kershaw got that far, he was coming out. Wright would have been facing him for the fourth time, the pitch count was significant and Mattingly could be forgiven for wanting to do whatever possible to avoid a fifth straight postseason loss for Kershaw.
Mattingly always appears to be clear-headed and resolute, and he was no different after Game 1. He wasn't particularly expansive, but he was patient when discussing his decision. It wasn't spontaneous, or reactionary. If you take away the names of the participants and all memories of the game's first six innings, you couldn't see how anyone could come to any other conclusion.
The idea of baseball people trusting their eyes in the age of analytics is something that's about as hip as a mid-'80s Chrysler, but scouts used to say that hitters -- and not pitch counts -- will tell you when the pitcher's done. They tend to do that when velocity drops or they continuously fall behind in the count or their sequences become predictable. In this case, the language the Mets were speaking wasn't that easy to translate. They weren't hitting the ball, and they didn't look all that comfortable. They were able to lay off some close pitches and foul off some good ones, which isn't the kind of rally to incite a fight at the bat rack.
Given what took place in Game 1 -- Jacob deGrom and his 13 strikeouts, Kershaw and his 11 -- dominant pitching, close games and second-guessing figure to be recurrent themes in this series.
So, when do you take out a pitcher? Hell if Mattingly knows. He knows it feels physically and cosmically impossible for him to get Kershaw through seven innings of a postseason game. Because of that, he can be forgiven if he throws his hands up and figures whatever choice he makes is destined to be wrong. He'll send Zack Greinke out there in Game 2 to save the season, though, and you can bet he'll be rooting for a blowout. Either that or he'll be the one standing in the dugout tunnel, eyes clamped shut, fingers in his ears.