PHOENIX -- On the first day he was activated the Dodgers got just what they wanted in the ninth inning with Matt Kemp at the plate with the tying and go-ahead runs in scoring position. But Monday didn't go the Dodgers' way in the final frame, or for most of the game, really, in a 2-1 loss to the Diamondbacks.
The Dodgers had runners on first and second base with nobody out in the ninth inning, with Juan Uribe, Nick Buss and the pitcher's spot due up. Manager Don Mattingly had Uribe attempt a sacrifice bunt, which didn't work, as Uribe bunted into a fielder's choice at third base.
That left the Dodgers with runners still on first and second, but with one more out, and instead of one of the hottest hitters on the team at the plate in Uribe — he hit four home runs and a triple just last week, remember — they had rookie Nick Buss, playing his third major league game.
Mattingly had no regrets after the game about the decision to have Uribe bunt.
"Juan's a good bunter, we just didn't execute," Mattingly said. "For me that's the play there. This guy's a ground ball guy, wearing out righties."
This guy was Brad Ziegler, who in his six-year major league career had held right-handed batters to hitting just .216/.266/.266 entering Monday, including .212/.259/.277 this season. Ziegler's ground ball rate this year is 70.9%, tops among all MLB relievers with at least 30 innings. It is 66.1% in his career.
Mattingly was also mostly correct in that Uribe is a good bunter. In his career Uribe has attempted to sacrifice bunt 80 times, and was successful 63 times, a rate (79%) higher than the MLB average (69%) during his career. In 2013 Uribe is now 3-for-5, and there in lies part of the problem. In the last four seasons Uribe has attempted to sacrifice bunt only seven times.*
*The caveat here is that Baseball-Reference only tracks bunt attempts put in play, and failed bunts early in the count that lead to negative outcomes later in the at-bat aren't counted. But I feel safe in saying that, for his career at least, Uribe has been a good bunter.
It should be noted that even had Uribe's sacrifice bunt been successful, the Dodgers' expected runs in the inning would have went down, according to the run expectancy this season per Baseball Prospectus, from an average of 1.4164 runs to 1.2854. Even after the bunt was unsuccessful the Dodgers' run expectancy was 0.8834 runs, though they ended up with zero.
With one out, the rookie Buss came to the plate for his 11th major league plate appearance. There was still a chance at a double play and having Kemp wasted in the on-deck circle, but Mattingly was confident enough Buss wouldn't hit into a game-ending twin killing that he didn't have Kemp pinch hit earlier.
"I felt like I was going to get Matt up there [batting for Ryu]," Kemp. The only thought was whether or not to use Matt and Jerry [Hairston]."
With Hanley Ramirez, Andre Ethier, Carl Crawford and even Scott Van Slyke unavailable to pinch hit, the choice other than Kemp was essentially Buss or Hairston. It is telling that Hairston — hitting just .212/.282/.295 in 212 plate appearances this season, including a 3-for-31 slump over the last month — was passed over for a rookie in his third major league game, though the platoon advantage shouldn't be discounted.
"It's just the way it is," Mattingly said, referring to his injury-forced roster limitations. "I like the kid actually, He can hit a little bit. [Ziegler] is just a tough matchup on a righty."
Buss grounded out, putting runners on second and third for Kemp, who struck out to end the game.
"[Kemp]'s been swinging the bat good. He's confident right now. I feel good with him at the plate. He actually had some pretty good swings up there I thought," Mattingly said.
Mattingly said he was confident in using Kemp as a pinch hitter, which will be his role for the foreseeable future, pending Kemp's right hamstring and left ankle cooperating to expand his role.
"Until I can use him in some other way, [pinch hitting] is the only way I really can use him," Mattingly said. "Tomorrow may be the breakthrough day, but until medical tells me that he can run and play the outfield, that's what he'll be doing."
While a ton of attention has been paid to the ninth inning for the Dodgers on Monday night, and rightfully so, the first eight innings should be accounted for. The Dodgers simply didn't score enough to win, which has become a pattern of late.
The Dodgers have scored three or fewer runs in each of their last six games, and in nine of their last 11 games, and 15 of their last 23 contests. They have lost nine of their last 12 games.
"Tonight goes into what I always think about September. It's hard to win games. I don't care who you are or what is going on. Games are hard to win. That just is what it is," Mattingly said. "They have a good club over there, they are going to play. We didn't do enough to win."