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Dave Roberts leaning on lessons from nights, mentors in the minor leagues

The Dodgers have won five National League West titles and three NL pennants in five seasons under Dave Roberts, and are halfway to finally ending their World Series drought.
The Dodgers have won five National League West titles and three NL pennants in five seasons under Dave Roberts, and are halfway to finally ending their World Series drought.Sean M. Haffey/Getty

When the Dodgers won the National League pennant last week, Dave Roberts, the Los Angeles manager, was unusually emotional as he spoke at a lectern about how this would prove to be the Dodgers' year.

Roberts is normally seen as an unflappable, self-possessed figure standing in the dugout, calmly writing snippets of tactical information and other managerial data into a small blue notebook.

Some of those attributes are innate, but Roberts credits an early mentor named Jeff Manto for teaching him the value of a measured and composed approach to baseball through a specific technique that still serves him, as he seeks to block out the tumult while attempting to guide the Dodgers to their first World Series title in 32 years.

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“You want to make sure it doesn’t speed up on you,” Roberts said Friday before his Dodgers beat the Tampa Bay Rays, 6-2, in Game 3 of the World Series.

Baseball may appear ponderously slow to some. But for a manager, time can move rapidly during games, as crucial decisions roll by in speedy succession, especially late in games when vital elements stack up: the status of each of the manager’s own players and the other team’s players; the state of the game; how someone looked in a previous at-bat; weather conditions; field conditions; piles of statistical information that need to be sorted, prioritized and applied at the right moments. And all of it measured against gut instinct.

Roberts, who has led the Dodgers to three World Series since he was hired in 2016, had much less to worry about when he was a 26-year-old minor leaguer simply hoping to break into the majors.

In 1998, he had just been traded by the Detroit Tigers to the Cleveland Indians and sent to the Class AAA Buffalo Bisons. It was there that he met Manto, a veteran minor league third baseman for several organizations.

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Manto was 33 at the time and had played more than 1,100 games in a 15-year career — mostly in the minor leagues and Japan, but roughly 300 across eight MLB teams, including 22 games with the Red Sox in 1996. He was as respected and knowledgeable as he was persistent. He is one of only three Bisons players to have his uniform number retired.

Roberts describes Manto as a Crash Davis type, referring to the main character in the movie “Bull Durham” — a sage veteran of the minor league circuit with much to teach. Roberts, known for his curiosity, soaked up a good deal of it.

“When he came to our ballclub, he was high, high energy,” Manto said of Roberts last week in a telephone interview. “But the main thing was that he wanted information. He was always asking quality questions to the veteran guys about how to do everything. It made an impression on you.”

Jeff Manto played parts of nine seasons in the major leagues, including two stints in Boston during 1996.
Jeff Manto played parts of nine seasons in the major leagues, including two stints in Boston during 1996.GREENHOUSE, PAT GLOBE STAFF PHOT

The feeling was mutual, because Roberts recalled how Manto, who now runs a player development academy in Pennsylvania, explained to him one of the keys to success in professional baseball, a method to prevent the game from spinning out of control.

“It was one of the tricks I learned over the years,” Manto said. "When things started speeding up and something was going too fast — maybe even off the field, like a family situation — I would do everything slower.

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“I drove the speed limit to get me back to point, I’d eat slower. Whatever that means, it meant a lot to me.”

It also meant something to Roberts, who still recalled the advice 22 years later. On game days, Roberts would drink his coffee slowly, move around his house slowly, get to the park early and get dressed slowly. And when it came time to hit, he would walk slowly to the batter’s box.

This is perhaps a bit unexpected for a player whose singular moment of fame — stealing second base in Game 4 of the 2004 American League Championship Series to ignite the historic comeback against the Yankees — was all about speed. But mentally, the approach needs to be relaxed enough to make the game appear slow.

“When Dave stole that base, I knew there was some element of it that he had learned by asking a question,” Manto said. “There is no doubt. Maybe it was his lead, how to read the pitcher, checking the catcher. Maybe all of it. But that is what made him unique.”

Manto described Roberts as extremely respectful, not only to him, but also to the game and to the process of being a player and a teammate. Once, in 1999 in Buffalo, Roberts was responsible for the shoebox that contained the fine payments for the players' kangaroo court. But he lost it, and the money inside. Some of the players told Manto, who was the judge that week, and he waited to see how Roberts would respond.

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“He came up to me a couple days later and just told me the truth,” Manto said. “He said he left it on the bus. In Double-A, you use the same bus all the time. But in Triple-A, one bus leaves and another one picks you up. He was really apologetic, and I just told him to pay it back. But it showed how seriously he took it, because it was about being a part of a team.”

Roberts made an impression on many people back then, including Mark Shapiro, now the president of the Toronto Blue Jays. In 1998, Shapiro was Cleveland’s assistant general manager, and even though the two spent only a couple of years in the same organization, they remain friendly. Shapiro calls Roberts one of five or six people in his career with whom he shares a special connection.

Three years after Roberts left Cleveland, he ended up in Boston on a team that would make history in October 2004. Shapiro told Roberts at the time that his brother David, who worked for a nonprofit, lived in a modest home in Boston and that he should visit for dinner.

“And he went,” Shapiro said. “Here he is, a big major league player for the Boston Red Sox, and he goes to my brother’s little house in Jamaica Plain and plays with my brother’s little kids.”

Shapiro said he wished he could claim he always knew Roberts would make a successful manager, but he admits he never really thought of it, mostly because he was focused on him as a player and later as a friend. Now, even when Roberts gets criticized for a decision that backfires, he realizes it makes perfect sense.

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“He’s so well-grounded and authentic,” Shapiro said. “That is what enables him to deal with things, the criticism that comes with the job. He definitely learned a lot along the way, but a lot of it is just who he is.”

Cody Bellinger downgraded to designated hitter just before Game 4

Just more than an hour before playing the Tampa Bay Rays, the Los Angeles Dodgers tweaked their starting lineup, putting Cody Bellinger at designated hitter and AJ Pollock in center field. There was no immediate word from the Dodgers on why the switch was made.

Bellinger had started the first three games of the series in center field, and was there in the original lineup. He homered and had a leaping catch that robbed the Rays of a possible homer in Game 1 on Tuesday night, two days after he popped his right shoulder out of whack during an emphatic celebration of his go-ahead homer in Game 7 of the National League Championship Series.

Clayton Kershaw eager for whatever the stakes are in Game 5

Clayton Kershaw will either take the mound Sunday night with a chance to close out the Los Angeles Dodgers' first World Series title since 1988, or pitch in a tied series down to three games to decide a champion.

“We’ve got to get the job done tonight,” he said before Game 4 on Saturday night. “I haven’t let myself think that far yet. But I know either way, I’m pitching tomorrow.”

The 32-year-old left-hander from nearby Dallas has spent all 13 of his big league seasons with Los Angeles. He is an eight-time All-Star, three-time NL Cy Young Award winner and the 2014 NL MVP.

“When you’ve been working so long and so hard for one goal and it’s getting closer and closer with each win, it’s harder not to think about the end game and what that might be like,” he said. “But you just have to. . . . So for me at least, it’s just a constant focus on the next day, the next game, the next pitch. And you just have to remind yourself, you just have to, really discipline yourself to do it.”

Kershaw beat Houston in the 2017 Series opener, allowing one run and three hits in seven innings against Houston, but failed to hold a 4-0 lead in the fourth of Game 5, a game the Astros won, 13-12, in 10 innings. Kershaw came back on two days' rest to enter Game 7 in the third with Houston leading 5-0 and pitched four shutout innings in a 5-1 loss. The Astros' sign-stealing scam was later revealed.

Kershaw lost the opener and Game 5 finale in 2018 against the Red Sox, allowing nine runs in 11 innings.

In Game 1 this week, Kershaw allowing one run and two hits in six innings. The Rays scored on Kevin Kiermaier’s fifth-inning homer.

“You definitely have to take into consideration what you’ve done against these guys in the past, in Game 1,” he said. “Any time that hitters see you, they get a little bit more of an advantage. . . . You might have to change a few things up but for the most part, just continue to pitch the way that you pitch.”

Kershaw is 12-12 with a 4.22 ERA lifetime in the postseason.

Ji-Man Choi’s play has been a real stretch

Ji-Man Choi focused on getting more flexible after dealing with some injuries in the minor leagues. Now the 6-foot-1, 260-pound Rays first baseman is doing full splits in the World Series.

Tampa Bay fans have seen the Ji-Man stretches, but there is a much bigger audience for the World Series, where the South Korean did a full split to take the throw from shortstop Willy Adames for the first out in Game 3 on a grounder by Dodgers leadoff hitter Mookie Betts.

“I try my best to just grab the ball at the earliest point possible. More practice with that helped me with my flexibility,” Choi said through a translator Saturday.

Plus the fact that he said he has been doing Pilates for about two years.

“Ji-Man was talking about his Pilates . . . yeah, he looks like a gymnast. He’s built like one,” manager Kevin Cash said, with a smile.

Choi is the first Korean-born position player to appear in a World Series game, which he called an honor while crediting the “special group of guy” — his teammates and them getting there together.

Stuck near away from home

Los Angeles infielder Max Muncy played high school baseball about 25 miles from the new Texas Rangers ballpark, and still lives in that area where he grew up. But he hasn’t been able to go there, even though the Dodgers have been in North Texas for three weeks.

The postseason teams have been in a bubble environment since starting postseason play at neutral sites. For the Dodgers, that has been the same resort hotel about 15 miles from the stadium where they also played their NL Division Series and the NL Championship Series.

“You’re so close and you’re so far away,” Muncy said Saturday. “It’s home to me and my wife, it’s where we have our house. Not being able to go see that, see our friends, see our family, not even allowed to have our pets, you know it’s just been extremely difficult. We’re really close to the end, and hopefully it’s something that’s going to all be worth it.”

Muncy said the first thing he and his wife will do after the World Series is pick up their pets, “and just go home and enjoy.”

Kershaw still lives in Dallas, and rookie right-hander Dustin May is from nearby Justin, Texas.

Hip surgery for Houston’s Josh James

Astros pitcher Josh James had a labral tear of his left hip repaired by surgery on Friday, and will need six to eight months to recover. James initially injured his hip Aug. 20 in a game at Colorado and went on the injured list. When the right-hander returned, he had a 1.35 ERA over 6⅔ innings in his final six appearances of the regular season. James also appeared in three postseason games, pitching four innings.

For the regular season, James was 1-0 with a 7.27 ERA in 13 appearances (two starts) with 21 strikeouts.