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LOS ANGELES – They've moved Matt Kemp's left foot back in the batter's box. It's just a few inches but still enough, they hope, to allow Kemp to clear quicker on the harder stuff inside. Over time he'd nudged that foot toward the plate, probably so he'd have a more reasonable shot at sliders on the far side of the strike zone, though it may have been unconscious. Either way, Kemp's setup had become closed, and now his stance is, while not open, at least sneaking up on neutral. The techies upstairs report the ball is coming off Kemp's bat well enough, presumably with the kind of velocity and trajectory that suggest better than one home run, eight extra-base hits and a .277 batting average through more than 150 plate appearances.
This, anyway, is what Dodgers manager Don Mattingly said.
There's more, actually. About balls being top-spun or back-spun and how they carry, about Kemp's habit, Mattingly said, of, "Putting the weight of the world on his shoulders," in which case it wouldn't matter where his feet were, and about that surgically-repaired front shoulder, the role that carries in all of this.
It's small stuff – an inch or two of dirt or bat or ballpark that are the difference between an offensive anchor in the three-hole and a five-tool superstar in the National League West. Then, you take that inch or two, spread them over a roster, over a disabled list, over a stadium-full of expectations, and they amount to something.
Currently, they add up to the relative instability of Mattingly's employment, or at least the daily public referendum on his employment, because the Los Angeles Dodgers – as a result of all those misplaced inches – have been nothing like anyone figured they'd be.
Therefore, when Mattingly looked across the field this weekend at the Miami Marlins – the 11-win Marlins, the $40 million Marlins, Jeffrey Loria's Marlins, the six managers (including an interim) since mid-2010 Marlins – he might have concluded that of the two jobs, his and Mike Redmond's, his own was less stable. That is, if Mattingly thought about things that way.
Generally, the conclusion to fire a manager is the call of the uninspired. The domain of the simple-minded. These are the same people who rail against the waiter when the fish of the day runs out. That is, of course, part of the gig, particularly when the gig includes a $230 million payroll, a lot of new season-ticket holders and an ownership group that didn't spend $2.1 billion for a last-place ballclub.
Mattingly's problem is that the Dodgers hardly ever score runs and have a remarkably average bullpen. While the Marlins were kind enough to surrender 12 runs over the past two days and leave discouraged Dodgers fans with the notion their club might be recovering from an eight-game losing streak, in reality a series win against the Marlins is less an indicator of good baseball than it is of a heartbeat. So, the Dodgers passed that minimal test, if just barely, as their remarkably average bullpen – Brandon League this time – required third baseman Juan Uribe to stab at and smother a ninth-inning grounder Sunday afternoon to end a burgeoning rally. The Dodgers won, 5-3, on Sunday which was fine, except they won't see another crummy team until the end of the month when the Angels come in, so just-enough against the Marlins might not look so hot against Washington, Atlanta, Milwaukee and St. Louis.
The point being, the Dodgers have had a player problem, not a Don Mattingly problem, and that will continue for as long as they hit like they hit, and pitch like they pitch, and rehab as often as they rehab. This is on Kemp, League and Andre Ethier, and it's on Josh Beckett and Ronald Belisario. It's on Hanley Ramirez's thumb/hamstring, and Zack Greinke's collarbone, and Adrian Gonzalez's neck, and Mark Ellis' quad.
If Mattingly were a better manager, would the Dodgers hit with runners in scoring position? Would they heal faster? Would Kemp have opened his stance three weeks ago?
You know whose team also hits .223 with runners in scoring position? Mike Scioscia's. And the Dodgers wouldn't be in last place either if the Houston Astros had relocated to the NL West instead of the AL West.
As easy (and lazy) as this would be to lay at the feet of Mattingly, it also would be wrong.
Management, including president Stan Kasten, Mattingly said, has been "pretty good" through six trying weeks.
"I don't think, I don't feel like there's been a panic in any way," Mattingly said. "There's always a sense of urgency when you've got a club like this. … Stan's been around a long time. He sees we're missing a lot of parts."
Beyond that, Mattingly admitted, the Dodgers should not be 15-21, which is where two weekend wins against the Marlins got them.
"We're still pretty good," he said. "We've got a lot of good players. We're not a team that should be losing six or seven or eight in a row."
In the end, he knows the deal. As a coach, he watched Joe Torre get run out of New York. As a player, well, the names Clyde King, Billy Martin, Yogi Berra, Lou Piniella, Dallas Green, Bucky Dent, Stump Merrill, Buck Showalter ring a bell? Mattingly played for them all, watched them all come and go, sometimes more than once, often enough without thought or merit.
So, different franchise, different coast, different time. A different man stands in the batter's box, an inch or two from being quite right. He covers that ground in time, and he'll be himself again. Be productive. Be a star. His team will be better for it.
He doesn't cover that ground, he'll try again tomorrow, and the manager is left to defend his ground. That's the distance, a couple inches, between getting this right and maybe getting it all wrong.
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