Don Mattingly’s gaffe hurts the Dodgers in Game 1 loss

Dodgers owners Todd Boehly, left, Mark Walter, second from right, and Stan Kasten, right, pose with Los Angeles Dodgers manager Don Mattingly during batting practice prior to their baseball game against the St. Louis Cardinals, Saturday, May 25, 2013, in Los Angeles.  (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)

Dodgers owners Todd Boehly, left, Mark Walter, second from right, and Stan Kasten, right, pose with Los Angeles Dodgers manager Don Mattingly during batting practice. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)

The Dodgers this season have gone from a 30-42, last-place mess to the National League Championship Series. That’s the kind of thing that earns manager of the year awards, contract extensions and universal admiration. But the Dodgers have remained quiet on the subject of Mattingly’s future status and the 2014 option they hold for his contract. They are happy Mattingly has guided the Dodgers to this point; they just won’t commit to him.

The reasons for their wariness surfaced last night in the Cardinals’ instant-classic, 3-2, 13-inning victory. Mattingly has employed questionable strategy on several occasions this October, as detailed here by Dylan Hernandez. No gambit has backfired worse than the decision that swung the game more than any other last night.

With the score 2-2, cleanup hitter Adrian Gonzalez led off the eighth inning with a walk against 22-year-old fireballing reliever Carlos Martinez. Mattingly sent Dee Gordon into the game as a pinch runner and lifted Gonzalez.

“You gotta shoot your bullet when you get a chance,” Mattingly said. “You get a guy on in that inning, you gotta take a shot at scoring a run.”

It looked bad the moment Mattingly made the call, and it only got worse and worse as the night wore on.

First, not even a speedster like Gordon could justify a steal attempt against the battery of Martinez, who has a strikingly quick delivery, and catcher Yadier Molina, who is a defensive deity. And so what are you hoping for? If Yasiel Puig hit a rocket into the gap, maybe – maybe – Gordon’s speed would be the difference between a run scoring and a runner reaching third.

The Dodgers didn’t even try to steal with Gordon. Puig hit a grounder to short, and Pete Kozma made a backhand play and fired to second to nab Gordon. The Dodgers had lost their cleanup hitter for precisely zero benefit.

Playing without Gonzalez crushed the Dodgers for the rest of the night, too. Mattingly subbed Michael Young for Gonzalez at first base. Young may be a big name and an accomplished hitter, but at this stage of his career he provides little threat – he slugged .395 this year with just eight homers.

And so Mattingly had not only removed Gonzalez, but also taken the bat out of Hanley Ramirez’s hands. Ramirez would come to the plate twice more, in the 10th and the 12th. The Cardinals intentionally walked him both times. In the 10th, Young hit a shallow fly to right that led to Carlos Beltran throwing out Mark Ellis at the plate. In the 12th, Young hit into a more conventional, 6-4-3 double play. (Young grounded into 21 double plays in 565 plate appearances this season; Gonzalez grounded into 12 in 641.)

Mattingly’s decision backfired at a comical level, as if the game went out of its way to punish him. He’s lucky an anvil did not fall on his head. It didn’t have to be so bad – what if Young’s fly ball drifted a few feet closer to center, and Jon Jay’s weak arm had made the throw rather than Beltran?

Regardless of the outcome, it was wrong at the time, shortsighted and panicky. He seemed to consider only the fact that that a fast runner was better than a slow runner. He didn’t consider how incrementally that mattered in the particular situation, and he didn’t think – or didn’t care enough – about the havoc not having Gonzalez would wreak if the game churned into extra innings. It’s not a second-guess to say Mattingly hurt his team – and maybe his own chances of managing the Dodgers next season.

The Cardinals’ deserve credit beyond taking advantage of Mattingly’s gaffe. On the final weekend of the regular season, Jayson Werth considered the Cardinals’ strengths and determined their flame-throwing bullpen was the thing that set them apart. Last night, starter Joe Kelly left after six innings, and six relievers held the Dodgers scoreless over seven three-hit innings with six strikeouts and two unintentional walks. If the Dodgers don’t get any early – and in Game 2, they’ll have to get that lead against dynamo right-hander Michael Wacha – they will be hard-pressed to come back.

Speaking of Werth and the Cardinals’ bullpen, yesterday was the one-year anniversary of this. Lance Lynn got the win last night. We don’t have to talk about what today is the one-year anniversary of.

Other Series

The Red Sox and Tigers start the ALCS tonight, and Barry Svrluga says it’ll come down to Detroit’s stat-studded staff against Boston’s thumping lineup. Boz sees clashing styles. The Red Sox have one wicked smaahrt team. The series may hinge on Anibal Sanchez, a former Red Sox farmhand.

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