There were many critics of Los Angeles Dodgers manager Don Mattingly following Friday night’s 3-2 13-inning loss to the St. Louis Cardinals in Game 1 of the NLCS.
Essentially, the issues can be boiled down to one move he made, and one he didn’t.
In the eighth inning of a 2-2 game, Adrian Gonzalez drew a leadoff walk. Mattingly promptly pinch-ran Dee Gordon for Gonzalez, his home run leader and one of his most productive hitters. The short-term payoff never materialized, with Gordon getting forced at second base without even attempting to steal.
It was a move that also threatened to derail future rallies if the game went into extra innings, as it did. And Gonzalez’s replacement in the lineup, Michael Young, happened to come up at two critical moments. He hit a medium-sized fly ball in the tenth that October God Carlos Beltran converted into a double play. And in the twelfth, with two on, Young hit into a more traditional double play.
An inning later, Mattingly only turned to Kenley Jansen, his finest reliever, once Chris Withrow put two men on. Mattingly went to four relievers prior to Jansen. All night on Twitter, Mattingly took abuse as each new non-Jansen pitcher entered for holding back his closer in a time-honored and, frankly, self-defeating way on the road, waiting for a save situation that often never comes, and didn’t Friday, either.
So it was interesting to hear Mattingly say following the game that he made the decision to pinch-run Gordon for Gonzalez because “it’s one of those [situations] that you’ve got to shoot your bullet when you get a chance … If we don’t use [Gordon] there and the next guy hits a ball in the gap and he doesn’t score and we don’t score there, we’re going to say, ‘Why didn’t you use Dee?’ So it was our opportunity to run him.”
When it came to pinch-running, the typical rules didn’t apply. But when it came to using Jansen, waiting for the save opportunity was “pretty much what happens with the closer.”
I didn’t quite understand how to reconcile the urgency in one spot with the reticence with the other. And Mattingly had an interesting, and seemingly different take on the subject after sleeping on it. For one thing, he seemed to feel he used Jansen earlier than usual, rather than far later than his critics believed he should.
“Well, we thought it was just that kind of game last night,” Mattingly said about early Saturday afternoon, prior to Game 2. “Usually you’re not going to use him until you have the game, you know if we have the lead, we’re gonna put him in. But at some point during that game, you’re gonna use him, o once they get to a situation where it’s a guy in scoring position, we’re gonna try and stop it right there.”
By contrast, Mattingly’s take on using Gordon in the eighth to pinch-run hadn’t changed, and he invoked the immutability of that strategy, regardless of game situation, as a reason for it.
“It’s why Dee’s on the team,” Mattingly said. “We have a chance to win a game right there. And you don’t know if you’re gonna go 13, you don’t know if Adrian’s gonna come back up, we don’t know that Puig won’t hit a ball in the gap right there, and Dee scores…there’s a lot of things we don’t know… the reason that Dee’s here, there’s a number of guys, who lead off that inning with a hit, Dee’s gonna run. So it’s not just Adrian. There’s a bunch of guys that we would probably run for.”
Pinch-running for a key hitter is something that will always happen under Mattingly, according to Mattingly. How he uses his closer, though, may change, as it did last night, and even more going forward.
“I talked to Kenley after the game,” Mattingly said. “That’s kind of the old-time way of using a guy. They bring relievers in with the game on the line, people everywhere. And nowadays, we bring them into the inning, the clean inning.”
Mattingly also said he’d have used Jansen for multiple innings, had he retired Beltran and forced the game into the 14th.
“That’s the reason I double-switched right there,” Mattingly said. “If he gets those outs, he’ll go out there for another inning. And you see what they do, they go two innings with their guy last night.”
True: Cardinals manager Mike Matheny utilized his best reliever, Trevor Rosenthal, in the ninth and tenth. Now, he did so at home, where the “don’t waste your closer in non-save situation” idea doesn’t apply. But it is difficult to imagine Matheny holding Rosenthal back in a similar situation at Dodger Stadium.
Still, Mattingly sounded like he was open to a more aggressive deployment of Jansen over the rest of the series, even on the road, an interesting contrast to his pinch-running answer.
“It just depends on the situation,” Mattingly said. “We’ve got an off day tomorrow. Do you use these guys a little differently today, knowing you have an off day tomorrow? You would. But it’s tough to start thinking two innings with him at this point. Try to win the game today…”
Mattingly trailed off for a moment from his cross-examination of himself. He didn’t seem to come to a set conclusion. “Game-to-game, it changes. And his usage changes from how it usually does.”
How Mattingly lands on this question, and whether he alters course on things like pinch-running for his best hitters, could well decide the series. It already changed the course of Game 1.