PHOENIX -- The last time I sat down to talk at length with Dodgers manager Don Mattingly, his job and the season were anything but secure.
"Obviously there were a couple of months there where it was really tough," general manager Ned Colletti recalled on Thursday. "We kept losing people and kept falling behind. You go 12 under. You go 9 1/2 games back. You're in last place on July 1."
Club president Stan Kasten met with Mattingly and told him that when players like Hanley Ramirez and Zack Greinke came back from injuries, he expected things to straighten out. "If it doesn't happen, I don't know what we might do," Kasten recalled having told Mattingly.
Fast forward to the arrival of Yasiel Puig from the Minor Leagues and an incredible 42-8 run. And on July 22, the Dodgers took over first place in the National League West from the D-backs and never looked back. On Thursday, Los Angeles clinched the division title by defeating Arizona, 7-6, at Chase Field. The Dodgers will open their NL Division Series on Oct. 2.
How much credit belongs to Mattingly?
"He kept it steady," a champagne-soaked Colletti said as the Dodgers celebrated around him in the clubhouse. "I don't know if that was always him or he learned that from Joe [Torre]. But they're both very, very steady through highs and lows, because their personalities transcend the room. And if they're not steady, the room won't be steady."
With the Dodgers having yet to exercise a club option on his 2014 contract, Mattingly and I sat down again this week to talk about what transpired over the past four months.
MLB.com: This season has been some kind of ride.
Mattingly: Yeah, a little bit with all the expectations early. Then out of Spring Training and going through all the injuries, obviously. And then the turnaround, it's been quite a year.
MLB.com: How much do you think you were able to contribute to this division title run by calmly handling it all the way through?
Mattingly: Obviously you have to be able to lead, but I can't take all of the credit. A lot of credit goes to our coaching staff. They've been tremendous. All of our guys are experienced guys who have been there as players and have coached for awhile. They were very steady. I think that it was good for our club that we weren't in here in disarray -- all scrambling like we hadn't been through a season before. I think you have to understand how long a season is. If the team is good enough, if you have the right guys, if you have enough talent, it has a chance to be all right in the end.
MLB.com: Did you feel like you had support from the front office -- Kasten and Colletti -- during those tougher times?
Mattingly: I think it gets to a point where you don't really know, because everything gets so crazy. It's not like they sit there and tell you, "Hey, we're sticking with you." Stan says: "We're with you, but … We like you and everything else, but …" I just know enough to know that when you have this kind of payroll and you've got these kinds of players, somebody is going to get it, and it's not going to be them. They're going to blame me or make a change to try to get it to go in a different direction.
MLB.com: Do you think that came close in May?
Mattingly: I don't know. I'm sure it was talked about. You learn a lot during those times. I'm a pretty good judge of people. I don't say a whole lot, but I try to pay attention. You can tell when people distance themselves from you, and they definitely started distancing themselves from me. That's the kind of stuff you remember and move on. You learn your lesson from it.
MLB.com: What specifically did you learn?
Mattingly: You learn who's who. You find out who your friends are. You know who supports you really during those times. When it's really bad, that's when you know who your guys are. That's always good, and it's been a good experience for me as far as the fact that I've been through it now. I've been through it and came out of it. You stay the course, remain persistent and persevere. There are some times that are a little rough and you're in the rough water, but you know where you're going. And you don't get away from being yourself. You can't panic. If you panic, the players know it. If suddenly I'm a different personality than I've been for two years, they're going to know it. You can't hide from these guys. If you make a mistake, they know it. If they make a mistake, they all know it. I just think it was great that we hung together. It was good for all of us.
MLB.com: Stan said he told you that you had his support, but he didn't know how long that would last if the team didn't start playing well once all the injured players returned.
Mattingly: I don't know if he said it just like that. But it was more like, "We like you. But at some point if this continues, we'll have to make a change." That's perfectly understandable. Really, you don't even have to say that. To me, you should know that.
MLB.com: Even back in May, you told me that if the Dodgers didn't make the playoffs, you didn't expect to be back.
Mattingly: I think with this club and if we were healthy all year long, we should make the playoffs. Now, if I have 20 injuries and five out of my starting nine aren't playing, that's a different thing. And we had that for awhile. That's when we were just a "hang in there" club. We were no different than anybody else.
MLB.com: So in June and July when this came around, did you ever get a message from those guys?
Mattingly: No, no I don't need that. I think just what we've been able to do is plenty for me. There's nothing better than the field for me. These guys responding and hanging in there and turning the corner. When we turned that corner right before the All-Star break, that was huge for us. I knew we were in it then. And the way we responded after the break, I knew we were rolling.
MLB.com: So have they said anything to you yet about your contract for next season? They have an option, right?
Mattingly: Yes, they do have a club option, but now wouldn't be the time. Not at all. It shouldn't even be a part of any equation. I wouldn't even discuss it. It's not even something I want to talk about it. Where we want to be right now, that's all I want to talk about, that's all I care about.
MLB.com: Wait until the playoffs are all over and then worry about it?
Mattingly: I'm not worried about that, either. Period. I'm totally comfortable right now. I think the fact that we've played well speaks for itself. I don't know what's going to happen, but then again, I don't have any control over that stuff.
MLB.com: You played all those years with the Yankees and finally made the playoffs in 1995, the year you retired. You had good runs as a coach under Joe Torre both in New York and Los Angeles. But you've never won a World Series. How does it feel to make the playoffs in your first job as a manager?
Mattingly: It feels really good. Obviously this is my third year, but I've been proud of my clubs. I was really proud of that first-year club that we had. I felt like they played very hard. It's given me a chance when we were down as an organization to grow as manager and learn a lot. That made me more prepared for this. But for me, it always gets back to that staff that we stick together. As manager, if you don't have a good staff, you're in trouble.
MLB.com: So I imagine getting to the World Series and winning it is the big prize?
Mattingly: That's it. That's what we're all here for. That's what's great about what we're trying to do. We talked about it in Spring Training, about not even having to fight down the stretch, of setting ourselves up in the best position we could going in. And so, we're not fighting for a Wild Card, having to burn our best two pitchers in the last two days of the season to get in. You can win it like that. We've seen it. But we talked about playing good enough baseball to at least give ourselves the best opportunity, to have our pitching set up and be ready to go. And right now, it feels that we're on the precipice of that.
MLB.com: What do you think of your chances?
Mattingly: I always get back to the simplest form of this game as a player, as a manager or as coach: get ready to play, get ready. Get your guys ready. Get ready to play that game today. It's the only one you have a chance to win. Be ready for your first at-bat, get ready for that first pitch you have to make, be ready in that first inning to make a play. Just be ready to play. It's always going to come back to that. I don't care if it's the clinching game, Game 1 or Game 7. It's all the same. It's baseball, and [you need to] be ready to play. If we do that, it will take care of itself.