Did Juan Uribe Save Don Mattingly’s Job?

It looks that way, doesn’t it? Let’s be fair, Don Mattingly probably deserves to be a manager. Not of a team like the Dodgers with bottomless pockets and perennial World Series aspirations. But probably somewhere. In the awful Frank McCourt era, he worked hard with a cobbled together roster and probably got better results than anyone could have really hoped for. In 2013, with a star-studded roster, the list of things he did right is a short one. One was how he handled Cuban sensation Yasiel Puig’s transition to the big leagues. The other was giving maligned third baseman, Juan Uribe another shot.

From his complete mismanagement of the bullpen, to his incomprehensible lineup and batting order changes, to his chronic disastrous late inning decision making, there isn’t a person in baseball who probably deserved to lose his job more than Mattingly. If you didn’t know better, you’d swear he was intentionally making the worst possible decision in some sort of sick experiment to see if his team could win anyway.

But with one swing of the bat that almost never happened, it all changed. After two failed attempts to bunt Puig, who had led of Game 4’s bottom of the 8th inning with a double, over to third, Uribe hit the most significant Dodger home run since Kirk Gibson’s 1988 moment of magic against Dennis Eckersley… or arguably Steve Finley’s division clinching grand slam. Gone was the stench of the awful decision to bring in Ronald Belisario in the top of the 7th, who was so bad down the stretch that he should have been left off the postseason roster in favor of, believe it or not, Carlos Marmol. Yeah, the same Carlos Marmol that was picked off of Chicago’s scrap heap and was even reasonably effective as the season wound down. Forgotten, if only briefly, was his criminal overuse of Paco Rodriguez, resulting in one of the league’s best left-handed relievers becoming a veritable batting practice tosser in games that matter. History was his unconscionable reluctance to go veteran JP Howell in high leverage situations, despite Howell’s lengthy track record of excellence with Tampa Bay in a tough AL East division. Swept under the rug was leaving ace Clayton Kershaw in Game 1 for more than 120 pitches despite a huge lead and the very real possibility (and ultimately reality) that Kershaw would come back for Game 4 on short rest.

But it almost never happened. Because, you see, Mattingly was having Uribe bunt Puig over. Bunt. Uribe, apart from Hanley Ramirez, had been the team’s best hitter down the stretch. After a meteoric beginning, Puig struggled in September. Adrian Gonzalez wore down, and while still productive, only hit a handful of home runs the last two months. Matt Kemp and Andre Ethier battled injuries. It was Uribe who really steadied the ship. Always a solid defender, he was spectacular at third base. Streaky for most of his career, he remained consistent down the stretch. Overly aggressive for his entire career, he showed patience, resulting in a career high on base percentage. And for you SABR metric lovers, his WAR was better than Ryan Zimmermann, and only a little worse than David Wright, the two benchmarks for NL third basemen.

Fortunately, David Carpenter’s 96 mile per hour fastballs are not easy to bunt, and Uribe, a pretty competent bunter in limited sample sizes, was only able to foul them off. Had he successfully gotten the bunt down, it would have been up to Skip Schumaker and AJ Ellis to knock Puig in from third. And while there’s no way to tell what would have happened, if their at bats against Carpenter were any indication, it wouldn’t have happened. But it didn’t have to, because one of the Dodgers’ hottest hitters could now forget about the idiotic bunt plan and swing away. And the rest was history.

Now, instead of being on the job hunt, where by all rights he should be, Don Mattingly is “leading” his team in the NLCS. It’s funny how little things make such a big difference. It’s inevitable that Mattingly, who is quite intelligent but whose IQ seems to drop by 100 points every time an important decision needs to be made in the course of a baseball game, will remind us again soon of why he really isn’t fit to manage a team with championship hopes.

But for now, that’s all forgotten.


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