Steady Mattingly steers Dodgers into playoff berth
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LOS ANGELES (AP) - Don Mattingly kept preaching patience.
Through the Los Angeles Dodgers' early season slide into last place, the injuries to key players, and the reports that his job was in jeopardy, the third-year manager kept his cool.
He told everyone that the talent was there and the team's fortunes would change. Did they ever.
The Dodgers went on a 42-8 tear from late June to mid-August to win the NL West and earn their first playoff appearance in four years.
Mattingly is quick to credit his players and coaching staff, part of the even-keeled Hoosier's steady approach during a wildly up-and-down season. He's as low-key managing one of baseball's most storied franchises as he was playing for another during a superstar career with the New York Yankees.
Mattingly goes into Thursday's National League division series opener in Atlanta not knowing if he will even be managing the Dodgers next season. The club's new owners, including Mark Walter, Stan Kasten and Magic Johnson, didn't guarantee his option for 2014 last offseason.
No matter, Mattingly has pressed on.
"Everything you go through is going to make you a better manager,'' he said. "I haven't really changed anything.''
That kind of levelheadedness carried Mattingly through the first couple of months of the season when the Dodgers and their high-priced talent fell 9 1/2 games behind first-place Arizona while dropping a season-worst 12 games below .500.
Injuries played a big part, with Zack Greinke, Hanley Ramirez, Matt Kemp, A.J. Ellis and Mark Ellis out at times. The bullpen was in disarray early on before Kenley Jansen assumed the closer's role.
While Mattingly was taking the blame and the heat on websites that demanded his dismissal, he knew the Dodgers were too good to be bad for long. Not with Clayton Kershaw and Greinke leading the pitching staff, and a lineup featuring Adrian Gonzalez, Ramirez, rookie sensation Yasiel Puig and Carl Crawford.
"Our little bit of a rallying cry was keep treading water,'' Mattingly said. "Usually water finds its mark. Talent is going to rise, it's going to come out. You just have to trust it and not just give in to always saying it'll come one day but keep working toward it and asking for it.''
As a career .307 hitter, Mattingly possesses credibility in the clubhouse that few managers who haven't played the game can boast. He's up front with his players, unafraid to call them out on their mistakes yet always doing it behind closed doors.
"The one thing I've always promised them is I wouldn't forget how hard the game is,'' Mattingly said. "I'll never come down on guys when they're struggling as long as they're working.''
His patience has come in handy with Puig, whose call-up from the minors in early June helped spark the upward surge. At times, Puig's aggressiveness has led to mistakes like overthrowing cutoff men, getting thrown out going for an extra base or getting picked off after taking too big a lead at first base.
Mattingly relates to the Cuban defector much as he would with his own three sons, two of whom tried professional baseball careers.
"I look at him like he's 22,'' the 52-year-old manager said.
Puig's locker is next to Gonzalez's in the Dodgers' clubhouse. The 31-year-old first baseman lends a veteran presence and is someone who takes pressure off Mattingly. The manager knows Gonzalez will be in the lineup daily, and can be counted on to be prepared and take care of himself.
"I want our focus to be every day get ready to play, grind it out and don't make mistakes,'' Mattingly said. "You don't take anything for granted.''
As quickly as Mattingly was blamed for the Dodgers' downfall, he knows he's going to get very little of the credit for their late-season sizzle. And he doesn't care.
"I'm proud of the guys for hanging in. I give a lot of credit to my staff and staying the course,'' he said.
The Dodgers are hurting again on the eve of the playoffs, with Kemp out for the rest of the season and Andre Ethier's health uncertain.
Still, Mattingly is calm about being at the mercy of how his players perform.
"I always look at what we have,'' he said. "It's pretty good.''
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