Role play: Skippers cultivate winning by using bench
Those who can play anytime, anywhere are vital to a team's success, especially late
No manager in Major League Baseball is more highly regarded than Tampa Bay's Joe Maddon for maximizing his full roster -- and keeping his players loose and animated over the long grind with his quirky, wide-ranging humor and philosophical nature.
Maddon's mixing and matching and highly progressive thinking cannot be overestimated in the Rays' rise over the past six weeks. He has his team's daily pulse, understanding his athletes' pluses and minuses, and owns a distinct feel for putting them in positions to succeed.
"One of the things that can make a team special is the willingness of every guy to sacrifice personal goals and do whatever it takes that day to win," said Sean Rodriguez, arguably the Majors' most versatile player. "Joe deserves a lot of credit for that. We've got all these guys who don't mind playing different positions and hitting anywhere in the lineup.
"Guys who do a lot of things can get overlooked when all the fans want to talk about are hitting and pitching. Defense is so important; a bad defense will break down a pitching staff in a heartbeat.
"This is a great bunch of guys to play with, a great clubhouse. Everyone pulls for each other." It's like Joe says: Check your ego at the door."
Madden welcomes new Rays, such as slugging rookie Wil Myers, with a standard message: "Check your ego at the door. If you do that, you'll have the most fun you've ever had in baseball."
Veteran bench guys such as Rodriguez are known to be invaluable in promoting and maintaining healthy chemistry.
"We're a team -- that's all we think about and care about," Rodriguez said. "I know it's a cliché, but it's the truth. It starts with Joe and goes right on down through the ranks.
"We do whatever it takes. We believe in each other."
|"It's a great comfort to a manager knowing you can go to a guy who will give you what you need in a situation, whether it's a bunt or hitting behind the runner or hitting a cutoff man. All the so-called small things."|
|-- Giants manager
A superstar during his playing days in New York, Don Mattingly manages a sizzling Dodgers team rich in star power. Leaning on his heartland background, the Indiana native
sees past the glare of Los Angeles to recognize the full value of the lesser lights, the blue-collar brigade.
"We always talk about the big guys," Mattingly said as the likes of Clayton Kershaw, Zack Greinke, Matt Kemp, Adrian Gonzalez, Hanley Ramirez and Yasiel Puig passed through the Dodgers dugout. "We can't forget about the role players, how important they are to a club. You've got to get contributions from your whole roster to win.
"To get through a season, to build a team and put it together, you think about all the pieces that fit."
As manager of World Series champions in two of the past three seasons, the Giants' Bruce Bochy is an authority on the process of completing a winning puzzle. While Buster Posey, Pablo Sandoval and a sterling pitching staff drew the lion's share of the credit in 2010 and last October, Bochy knew there was much more to it than name-brand athletes rising to the occasion.
"Those veteran guys off the bench are so important," Bochy said. "It's a great comfort to a manager knowing you can go to a guy who will give you what you need in a situation, whether it's a bunt or hitting behind the runner or hitting a cutoff man. All the so-called small things.
"A guy like Ryan Theriot, for example, was outstanding for us last year. And everyone could see the difference Marco Scutaro made when we got him in the trade with Colorado. Guys like that make a difference."
Theriot holds the distinction of playing for back-to-back champions with the 2011 Cardinals and 2012 Giants. Bochy had Theriot, who hit one home run over those two seasons, in the designated hitter's spot when the Giants completed their sweep of the Tigers in Detroit last October.
Theriot singled and scored the deciding run -- driven home by Scutaro -- in the 10th inning of the Giants' 4-3 Game 4 victory.
Like Bochy, Tony La Russa was a master of manipulating his entire roster. In St. Louis, he kept versatile players such as Theriot, Skip Schumaker and Nick Punto actively involved throughout the season. In October, they were in a comfortable rhythm even though they were not everyday players.
"That's what Tony was so good at -- making sure players were ready," said Punto, who has reunited this season with fellow Southern California native Schumaker in Los Angeles. "Mattingly has done a great job, too. You look at all of our bench guys, we've got 200-plus at-bats. Part of it is because of all the injuries, but he has kept us involved."
In a win-or-go-home Game 5 in the 2011 National League Division Series against the Phillies, with Roy Halladay dueling the Cards' Chris Carpenter, La Russa had Punto at second base and Schumaker, a second baseman most of the season, in center field. It was Schumaker's second start all season in center; Punto made 23 regular-season starts at second.
Schumaker's RBI double in the first inning accounted for the lone run in the elimination game. He was 6-for-10 with three RBIs in the series.
"I'd look around the dugout," La Russa recalled, "and it was like, they're just loving this. The tougher, the better."
When the Dodgers pulled off their blockbuster trade with Boston a year ago, Punto was the fourth wheel in a deal that featured Gonzalez, Carl Crawford and Josh Beckett.
A versatile infielder for 13 seasons with five clubs, Punto is accustomed to playing in the shadow of bigger names drawing massive salaries.
That does nothing to diminish his desire to be a relevant part of a club, whether it's in Philadelphia, Minnesota, St. Louis, Boston or Los Angeles.
Punto, Schumaker and Jerry Hairston Jr. have been instrumental in their multi-positional roles off the bench in driving the Dodgers from the depths to the heights of the NL West with a spectacular run of excellence.
Hairston, a 16-year veteran who has played for nine teams, played six positions for the 2009 World Series-champion Yankees. Schumaker took his strong right arm to the mound this season and pitched two scoreless innings of relief.
Juan Uribe, the primary shortstop on the Giants' 2010 title team, has emerged as a rock-solid third baseman after two disappointing seasons with the Dodgers. Uribe turned shortstop over in the 2010 postseason to fellow veteran Edgar Renteria, who claimed the World Series Most Valuable Player Award with two homers and six RBIs in five games, batting .412.
"Not because I'm a veteran who's been a utility player," Punto said, "but I've always loved having veterans on the bench -- especially in September, October, November baseball.
"That's when the pressure's really on. Right now, it's all fun. We're playing great baseball. Come September, you're grateful when you have guys who have been there, been through it."
Bochy was a backup catcher, an observer of attitudes and makeups as a player unknowingly preparing for his path as a manager. He's seen how smart, dedicated role players can impact a club.
"Winning certainly helps the chemistry," Bochy said, "and they go hand-in-hand. But sometimes chemistry has to start first, with the guys believing and pulling for each other and getting along and all playing for the same cause. That's what can bring winning."
Lyle Spencer is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.