Puig saved Dodgers, Mattingly’s job

On May 19, I wrote that the Los Angeles Dodgers would fire Don Mattingly. I said I was “convinced” it would happen, and that “my guess” was that Mattingly “gets this (next) series, and if things don’t get better, that’s it.”

Well, I was wrong. I am happy I was wrong. And in hindsight, what I should have written that day, in no uncertain terms, is a column posing the question, “Where the hell is Yasiel Puig?”

The Dodgers, who visit San Francisco this weekend (Saturday, MLB on FOX, 7 p.m. ET), are 17-11 since Puig joined the team on June 3. They’re also 10-1 since June 22, moving from fifth place, 9½ games out, into a tie for second, 2½ games back. And on Wednesday, Puig became the first to win Player of the Month in the first month of his career since the award was instituted in 1958.

It’s not a stretch to say that Puig saved the Dodgers’ season, and — at least for now — the jobs of Mattingly and general manager Ned Colletti. The team, at the time I predicted Mattingly’s demise, was a train wreck — 17-25, seven games back in the National League West and the fresh victim of an embarrassing sweep in Atlanta.

Six weeks later?

Puig, 22, is non-stop energy. Shortstop Hanley Ramirez is playing at an MVP level, and center fielder Matt Kemp and right-hander Zack Greinke also are back from injuries. The Dodgers, suddenly in contention, are plotting further moves before the July 31 non-waiver trade deadline.

Could be a trade of outfielder Andre Ethier. Could be trades for Marlins right-hander Ricky Nolasco, Phillies second baseman Chase Utley and heaven knows who else to increase the payroll beyond $220 million.

Whatever, the stakes are only rising — again — for Mattingly. And remember, his contract after this season is not guaranteed.

Still, a manager’s job security rarely is an issue for winning clubs. The Dodgers’ front office figured that the team would be so good, few in the media would mention Mattingly’s lame-duck status. And that, in decidedly roundabout fashion, is what finally is happening now.

A pennant race is a different form of crucible, bringing more attention to a manager’s in-game maneuvering, in particular his handling of the bullpen. It remains to be seen how Mattingly will fare under that type of scrutiny. But he already has proven his mettle in one sense, simply by surviving.

Colletti, in a meeting with Mattingly and his coaches that was first reported by ESPN.com, encouraged the manager to be more assertive. The GM, sources said, had encouraged Mattingly in similar fashion near the end of last season — with positive results.

This year’s meeting took place in Milwaukee, shortly after the Dodgers were swept in Atlanta. Mattingly responded by benching Ethier and made a series of remarks that I interpreted — as did several other columnists and numerous rival executives — as critical of management.

“We gotta find a team with talent that will fight and compete like a club that doesn’t have talent,” Mattingly said.

“I felt we got more out of our ability last year. I don’t know about being tougher, but I felt we got more out of our ability.

“There has to be a mixture of competitiveness. It’s not, ‘Let’s put an All-Star team together and the All-Star team wins.’ It’s finding that balance of a team that has a little bit of grit and will fight you. And also having talent to go with it.

“All grit and no talent isn’t going to make you successful. But all talent and no grit is not going to get you there, either.”

Those quotes, when viewed in the proper context of Mattingly’s meeting with Colletti, amounted to a challenge to the players, not a rebuke of the front office.

As it turned out, the players eventually found the balance that Mattingly desired, though not quite in the way he intended. No, they found it only after the Dodgers promoted the fiery, relentless and immensely talented Puig.

How long all this will last is anyone’s guess. Puig is bound to slow down offensively, and his hard-charging style could lead to injury — he suffered a bruised left hip Wednesday night when he crashed into the right-field wall in Colorado, and is day to day.

It’s funny: No one could have imagined the Dodgers’ season would turn out as it has, even in a sport that routinely produces unpredictable twists and turns. But teams, accustomed to the vagaries of 162 games, know to be more patient than fans and media often are — especially when obvious solutions are elusive.

The Dodgers had no obvious replacement for Mattingly, and team president Stan Kasten never has been one to act rashly. I knew all of that, of course. Heck, I had written it. But this is my 27th season covering baseball. Watching the final game of the Dodgers’ series in Atlanta, reading the frustration in Mattingly’s quotes that weekend, I thought I saw all the signs.

Anyway, as luck would have it, we had an MLB on FOX game in Los Angeles the weekend after I wrote that I thought Mattingly would be fired.

Mattingly, one of the game’s true gentlemen, greeted me that Friday with a handshake and a smile. On Saturday, in a private moment before our broadcast, I explained to him that I was simply doing my job. Though I didn’t need to explain it to him, it is my job to write opinion columns as well as news stories.

Mattingly indicated to me that he had no problem with speculation about his job status, but that he was bothered by the widespread misinterpretation of his remarks in Milwaukee. He certainly had a point — Colletti and Kasten, after all, had backed him. I nodded, said that I understood and made a mental note to be more careful if similar circumstances arose again.

Kemp, coming off shoulder surgery, was booed that day at Dodger Stadium; he went on the DL five days later with a strained right hamstring. The Dodgers rallied to beat the Cardinals 5-3 but still were a struggling last-place team. Only after Puig joined the club, 10 days later, did everything start to change.

It took a while, but the Dodgers finally got to the right place. Good for them. Good for Mattingly. Thank goodness for Puig.