Even given the recent string of winning, it’s safe to say Don Mattingly hasn’t been immune to criticism lately.
While the team has been producing on the field, Mattingly’s bullpen decisions, his infatuation with the statistically-inept bunt and his sometimes odd batting orders, has still managed to draw the ire of baseball people.
With that said, however, the Dodgers’ most recent comeback — down two runs in the ninth on Wednesday — was owed in large part to some brilliant maneuvers by Mattingly.
Things got started in the top of the sixth, when Mattingly decided to go to his bullpen early to grab Chris Withrow in relief of Chris Capuano.
While many managers would be hesitant to pull their starter after just five innings and 86 pitches — especially in a 4-0 game — Mattingly knew his team had a chance and that chance was maximized by going to the bullpen.
And just as Mattingly hoped, Withrow gave him two hitless innings.
Fast-forward to the eighth with the Dodgers now trailing 4-2 with Brandon League on the mound.
After a Jerry Hairston error kept the inning alive, the Mets had runners at first and third with two outs.
Once again, while most managers might be hesitant to over-manage in this situation, Mattingly went to his bullpen for JP Howell — who promptly got an inning-ending strikeout and kept the Mets lead at just two runs.
With nothing doing in the bottom of the eighth, Howell returned to the mound to get the first two batters out before surrendering a single to center.
This time, Mattingly went to the bullpen for Carlos Marmol with the hot-hitting Marlon Byrd up (having already knocked in three of the four Mets runs).
For the third time, Mattingly’s move worked as planned and Marmol got the inning-ending strikeout.
In the bottom of the ninth, the Dodgers kicked things off with a Mark Ellis single before Hairston advanced him to second with a ground out.
Next due up was catcher Tim Federowicz — but Mattingly decided he needed his best hitter up immediately and he bucked tradition by subbing Andre Ethier in for the weak-hitting catcher.
Four pitches later, Ethier had found the left-field pavilion and had tied the game at four.
Needing some length from his bullpen, Mattingly left Marmol in the game for the top of the tenth and the mercurial reliever got through the inning unscathed.
After two quick outs in the bottom of the inning, Mattingly was faced with yet another decision — what to do with the pitcher’s spot in the lineup.
With no position players left to use, many speculated that pitcher Zack Greinke (and his .385 average) would be the pinch hitter. With no rally brewing, however, Mattingly decided that keeping Marmol in the game was the best plan and so he was left to bat for himself.
Naturally, he almost went yard.
After one out in the eleventh, Marmol was relieved by Paco Rodriguez — who was able to get the final five outs of the game before Adrian Gonzalez walked things off in the bottom of the twelfth.
In an game as exciting as last night — from Puig’s fielding to his base running to Ethier’s bomb — it’s easy to lose sight of the little decisions that made it all happen.
Knowing he had a depleted bullpen — with Jansen and Belisario having pitched the two previous nights — Mattingly knew he had to get creative once Capuano exited in the sixth.
The result of his creativity was five pitchers combining for seven scoreless innings in relief — allowing just four hits while striking out nine.
While no one will remember the decision to sub Ethier for Fed-Ex or the decision to leave Marmol out there for the top of the top of the eleventh, both decisions were critical to the end result.
After months of turmoil as manager, Mattingly has finally felt the seat beneath him start to cool. And after his maneuvering on Wednesday night, it’s easy to see why.