The Dodgers of April and May 2013 and the Dodgers of June and July are two entirely different animals. And I'm a writer with a brilliant grasp of the obvious, aren't I?
Well, here's what I'm grasping this August: The skipper gets the lion's share of the credit for the Los Angeles team you see before you today. Don Mattingly is a huge reason for the club's turnaround — its metamorphosis, actually — from laughingstock to envy of the baseball world.
And while Mattingly doesn't get all the credit, he deserves plenty.
But let's be clear, this is no mea culpa, and certainly no retraction. I wrote some stinging posts about Mattingly and his job performance earlier in the season, and I'm not backing away from those criticisms. I did think the Dodgers did so many more things badly under his direction than were acceptable, and his laying everything at the feet of the players without taking a thimble of responsibility was at best unfair, and at worst malpractice.
I did question Mattingly's ability to teach, and I did think it was difficult to find significant examples of a player improving during his tenure (and no, Clayton Kershaw doesn't count). I did think that injuries were being overused as an excuse for losing, and that to some extent the L.A. manager may even have contributed to them.
I did think that Mattingly's handling of Matt Kemp — the near-MVP version — going all the way back to the center fielder's original hamstring injury in May 2012 was reckless, and that an argument can be made that risking a franchise player for the sake of a consecutive-games-played streak is an offense worthy of a pink slip independent of everything else.
I didn't like that Mattingly allowed Kershaw to make 132 pitches in an early-season outing and I did think he was off base with his Andre-Ethier-directed Milwaukee blowup in May.
But that's where I was wrong. Dead wrong. May 22 was the day the pendulum began to swing, though no one knew it at the time. With Ethier benched for lack of effort, the Dodgers beat the Brewers at Miller Park 9-2 to improve to 19-26, good enough for last place in the National League West, six games back of first place Arizona.
For context, review the game story by Dylan Hernandez in the L.A. Times:
Asked if he was trying to send a message to Ethier, Mattingly replied, “We're last place in the National League West. Last year, at this point, we're playing a lineup that basically has nobody in it, that fights and competes and battles you every day for every inch of the field. 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. If there's going to be a message sent, it's going to be over a period of time.”
What may have seemed then like a rant from a manager whose job was hanging by a cleat-string (and was, as it turned out), his words were taken to heart by the men in that clubhouse. They responded. Perhaps most importantly, Ethier responded.
While Ethier's numbers before his public-chastisement (.264/.353/.405) may be indecipherable from his numbers after it (.267/.353/.397), since bottoming out June 9, Ethier has hit .312, with 15 doubles and 26 RBIs. He's manned an unfamiliar center field better than even his most ardent supporters could've imagined, he's battled and hustled his ass off, and played like a man proud to wear the Dodger uniform.
So credit Ethier or his manager for the turnaround, or credit them both. But make no mistake, Mattingly's May 22 lecture was the signature moment of 2013. It was this year's Jesse-Orosco-eyeblack-in-Kirk-Gibson's-cap moment.
I've stayed away from the 25-year anniversary of the 1988 World Series because, while glorious, I think we've all had more than enough of 1988. A quarter-century between pennants is not a point of pride in Los Angeles, OK? Twenty-five years of reminiscing with nothing new to celebrate is a bit much.
Yet I'll make an exception here because it's Gibby-related and it's specific enough to be appropriate. The National League Championship Series, Sunday, October 9, 1988. Orel Hershiser had lost the day before in the rain and Los Angeles was an inning away from going down three games to one, with a Mets' clinching possible the following day.
Mike Scoiscia hit a two-run ninth inning homer off Dwight Gooden, Gibson took Roger McDowell deep for a solo shot in the 12th, and Hershiser came out of the pen on a day's rest and with the bases loaded to get Kevin McReynolds to fly to John Shelby in short center to get the Dodgers even in the NLCS.
The game ended at 12:49 a.m., with the next contest less than 12 hours away. When asked about sleep in a postgame interview, Gibson said simply, “We won't need sleep.”
Among the great things about the 2013 Dodgers is that they, too, don't need sleep. They fly cross-country after disposing of one supposedly-worthy opponent, then do the same to another. The Cincinnati Reds? Please. The St. Louis Cardinals? Three out of four. The Tampa Bay Rays? Vanquished.
The Dodgers don't require sleep. They win games start-to-finish, they come from behind to win and they win the one-run games. This is the kind of stuff that comes from the manager. This is where he makes a difference. This is where Mattingly gets credit for what's taking place.
What he doesn't get credit for is where Yasiel Puig comes in. The Dodgers are 43-18 since Puig's debut on June 3, and the rookie outfielder wasn't within 1,000 miles of Mattingly's May 22 rallying cry. Puig came with the energy the manager spoke of already within him, depositing a clubhouse full when he unpacked his footlocker.
Credit scout Mike Brito for finding Puig, credit VP of Amateur Scouting Logan White for Puig's signing, and credit a cast of dozens from the minor leagues and in support roles too.
Credit Ned Colletti and company for rebuilding the pitching staff, much of it on the fly, credit them for acquiring role players like Nick Punto and Skip Schumaker, credit them for the trades and signings which brought Carl Crawford, Adrian Gonzalez, Zack Greinke, J.P. Howell, Ricky Nolasco, Hanley Ramirez and Paco Rodriguez to Los Angeles, and credit them for hanging onto their most precious resources, a stable full of prospects.
Credit Stan Kasten for the brainpower and credit some 40 players who have contributed to the 2013 cause. And credit Don Mattingly for everything else. Everything else.
Just as a team can play badly, make errors in judgment, struggle with its day-to-day performance, so too can a manager, and especially a manager facing his first real crisis. Sure, working for Frank McCourt was challenging in its own way, but this season has required more.
Just as a team can dig deep to summon things that might not have been there before and improve as it moves forward, so to can a manager. And that's what's happened here with Don Mattingly.
During the team's turnaround he's done well mixing and matching, using his entire team; working players in, getting guys out to rest. He's stuck with slumping players and helped them turn things around to their benefit, and to the team's. Despite criticism, Mattingly has managed his bullpen well, and perhaps brilliantly. He wasn't distinguishing himself in these areas earlier, but he is now.
A manager's primary function is to give his team its best chance to win, to get them to play to their capabilities, and if at all possible, beyond. Mattingly hasn't always done that, but he has for better than two months, and he is now.
Look, a once-bumbling Dodgers squad has done a complete 180. They're almost assuredly headed to the postseason, with October history-making a distinct possibility for the first time in a generation. The man at the helm is responsible for most of it. Don Mattingly is that man. Credit where credit is due.