He has one of sport’s endearing nicknames because he’s a class act, an ambassador, a fan favorite whose soft Indiana drawl has carried him through America’s largest and most intense markets. But just because he’s known as Donnie Baseball doesn’t mean Don Mattingly can manage a championship ballclub.
And if the Los Angeles Dodgers don’t recover from his weekend of dugout blunders, there’s a good chance he’ll have a new nickname:
Donnie Pink Slip.
If you’re wondering why a franchise with a $237 million payroll hasn’t invested a little more in picking up Mattingly’s 2014 option, the first two games of the National League championship series provided Exhibit A … and Exhibit B … and Exhibits C and D and E. As it was, the one killjoy in a heretofore glorious Dodgers season had been his inexplicable strategic decisions, such as pulling stud pitcher Zack Greinke after six innings in a Game 2 loss to Atlanta in the NL divisional series. Now, Mattingly’s continuing misfires have placed the Dodgers in an 0-2 crater against the smarter and more streamlined St. Louis Cardinals, who are feeling sweet after facing Grienke and the planet’s greatest pitcher, Clayton Kershaw, and winning both games with a combined four runs.
That’s because the Dodgers were producing only two runs in their agonizing 3-2 and 1-0 losses, a drought due in part to their awful results with runners in scoring position — 1 for 16 — but also thanks to Mattingly’s insistence on removing punch from his lineup in the series opener. In a tight game, it never is advisable to remove your most reliable RBI man and valued team leader in the late innings. But Mattingly, managing for one run despite having a lineup with sufficient power bats, replaced Adrian Gonzalez after he’d walked to lead off the eighth inning. Speedy Dee Gordon entered to pinch-run, and he promptly was forced out at second base. So when the Dodgers desperately needed Gonzalez’s bat in later situations during a 13-inning marathon, Mattingly had to deploy a weaker threat, Michael Young, who replaced Gonzalez at first base.
“It’s one of those that you’ve got to shoot your bullet when you get a chance,” Mattingly said. “If we don’t use him (Gordon) there and the next guy hits a ball in the gap and we don’t score there, we’re going to say, `Why didn’t you use Dee?’ ”
Well, no. For one thing, there were no outs when he made the switch, meaning Gonzalez surely wouldn’t have tried to score if “the next guy” had hit a ball in the gap. More to the point, Mattingly seemed disturbingly unprepared to think forward into extra innings. In the 10th, Mark Ellis was on third after a one-out triple. If Gonzalez still was in the lineup, Cardinals manager Mike Matheny would have been far more hesitant to intentionally walk the rampaging Mr. October candidate, Hanley Ramirez, who hit .500 with six extra-base hits in the NLDS. But instead of having Gonzalez up next to protect Ramirez, Mattingly had … Michael Young, who eked out a weak pop fly just beyond the infield, where the perpetual Mr. October, Carlos Beltran, whipped a throw that beat Ellis at home. In the 12th, the Gonzalez-Young nightmare struck again. After Carl Crawford’s led off with a single, Mattingly made two more mistakes. Not recognizing that another intentional walk of Ramirez could be imminent, he had Ellis bunt Crawford to second, leaving first base open so Matheny conveniently could walk Ramirez to get to … Young, who killed the inning by hitting into a double play.
“We’ve got to put ourselves in a chance to score a run,” Mattingly explained.
Oh, but there’s more. In Game 1, Mattingly entrusted Andre Ethier — he of the tender lower leg, an injury serious enough that he only pinch-hit in Game 2 — to play center field when he hadn’t played in that spot since Sept. 13. In the third inning, Beltran ripped a drive to the rightt-center-field fence that would have required a fine defensive play — reaching up for a catch and then colliding with the padded wall. Ethier, maybe rusty and concerned about banging his leg into the wall, wasn’t the man to make that fine defensive play. Beltran’s two-run double was all the Cardinals produced off Greinke, who had nothing to show for 10 strikeouts in eight innings. Said Ethier: “I got to the wall right at the same time as the ball did and it kind of hit at the heel of my glove rather than right in the pocket. It was one of those bang-bang plays.”
Donnie Baseball? “Usually, when a guy jumps at a ball at the wall and runs into it at the same time, you don’t really call that rust,” he said.
Saturday, the Dodgers looked shellshocked against two obstacles: the late-afternoon shadows in Busch Stadium and Cardinals super-rookie Michael Wacha, who continued his recent dominance in holding the Dodgers scoreless and helping extend their runless streak in this series to 19. Without Ramirez and Ethier in the lineup — we can’t blame Mattingly for injuries — the Dodgers looked sickly at the plate. Yasiel Puig struck out four times and wears the look of defeat.
“We had our chances. We had out chances, for sure,” said Kershaw, who allowed only two hits and took the loss, with the lone run in the fifth set up by an A.J. Ellis passed ball.
The Cardinals head to Los Angeles with ace Adam Wainwright set for Game 3 against Hyun-Jin Ryu, who looked nervous in his NLDS start and now carries the pressure of lifting his team back into a series that looks lost. You sense where this is going, with the Dodgers batting .134 in the NLCS.
“We don’t get too far ahead of ourselves. We also don’t deny what happened here the last two days,” said Matheny, who quickly has made folks forget his Hall of Fame predecessor, Tony La Russa. “Those were two very good wins, two very tough wins when you face two starters like that.”
Owned by a financial conglomerate, the Dodgers aim to be a global powerhouse, the best baseball team ever assembled. Don Mattingly doesn’t fit the profile even when he’s managing well. When he’s not?
“We can look back on every decision,” he said. “If it doesn’t work, you can decide to go the other way.”
My guess is, the Dodgers will go the other way. One of their owners is Magic Johnson, who once had Paul Westhead fired the season after he coached the Lakers to an NBA title. Between Magic, the egomaniacal Guggenheim Partners guys and all sorts of angry fans looking for a scapegoat, the demise of Donnie Baseball appears days away.