MILWAUKEE — With speculation about his job status continuing to mount, Dodgers Manager Don Mattingly did something completely out of character Wednesday.
He criticized his players.
Before his last-place team’s 9-2 victory over the Milwaukee Brewers at Miller Park, Mattingly implied his team lacked mental toughness and cited that as a reason for benching Andre Ethier for the third time in six games.
Despite indications that Mattingly might be wilting under scrutiny, the Dodgers plan for him to still be their manager when they open a three-game series at home Friday against the St. Louis Cardinals, according to two people familiar with the situation who spoke under the condition of anonymity. Club officials said they weren’t bothered by Mattingly’s sudden shift in tone, thinking it could inspire the team to play harder.
Mattingly has almost always defended his players since becoming the Dodgers’ manager more than two years ago. But in explaining why Ethier was out of the lineup Wednesday, Mattingly said, “I’m trying to put the club out there that I feel is going to fight.”
Ethier, who is in the first year of a five-year, $85-million contract extension he signed last season, is batting .264 with four home runs and 15 runs batted in.
The Dodgers have the highest payroll in baseball history at $230 million, but Mattingly sounded as if he was still searching for a mix of players who had as much tenacity as talent.
“It’s not just all, ‘Let’s go put an All-Star team out there and play games and the team with the All-Star team wins,’ ” Mattingly said. “It’s trying to find that balance of a team that’s got a little grit and a little fight. All grit and no talent is not going to get you there, and all talent and no grit is not going to get you there. There’s got to be a mixture of both.”
Mattingly didn’t think the current team is getting as much out of its talent as the team he had at the start of last season, which he described as “playing a lineup that basically has nobody in it.”
The Dodgers were in bankruptcy in the winter leading up to the 2012 season. When Matt Kemp was sidelined for 51 games with a strained hamstring, the team leaned heavily on a cast of journeymen and rookies. Nonetheless, they were in first place until late June.
Do his current players earn too much money to have that edge?
“The salary structure is the salary structure,” Mattingly said. “Why talk about any of that?”
The American League’s most valuable player in 1985 with the New York Yankees, Mattingly sounded frustrated that not all of his players share the emotional resolve he had as a player.
Mattingly’s harshest words were directed at Ethier, who was replaced in right field by recent minor league call-up Scott Van Slyke.
Asked if he didn’t think Ethier would fight, Mattingly said, “I don’t really want to say that, but we’ve got to compete.”
While Ethier is hardly the only underperforming Dodger, he has a history of testing Mattingly’s patience. At the end of the 2011 season, Mattingly estimated that Ethier squandered 100 at-bats because of his inability to control his temper. Asked if that remained a problem with the two-time All-Star, Mattingly replied, “Yeah, at times.”
Mattingly was noncommittal when asked if Ethier was still an everyday player.
Told of what Mattingly said about him, Ethier remained calm and never raised his voice. But he wasn’t pleased.
Of the insinuation that he lacked internal fortitude, Ethier said, “I take offense to that. I work hard. Whether I’m going good or going bad, I work just as hard, both sides. Obviously, when things are going bad, I’m trying even harder to figure out how to make things go right.”
Ethier said he was bothered how Mattingly criticized him to reporters without addressing him first.
“If he has something like that to point out, I’m going to take a look at it and address it,” Ethier said.
Ethier, whose contract doesn’t include a no-trade provision, said he wants to remain with the Dodgers even if he isn’t an everyday player.
“I’m committed to what’s going on here,” he said.