Don Mattingly on if he was on the hot seat this season.

Make the rounds in the Dodgers' clubhouse and this becomes clear: The players like Don Mattingly. They really, really like him.

Players smile when they talk about him. They laugh when they share stories about him. They sound proud that he'll be leading them Thursday in the opening game of the National League division series against the Atlanta Braves, his first playoff game in three years as Dodgers manager.

But the Mattingly the players know isn't the same person the public sees, a laid-back, self-effacing Midwesterner.

"Laid back?" utilityman Jerry Hairston Jr. said. "I wouldn't say that."

Every day, around the time the first pitch of a game is thrown, the players see Mattingly transform in the dugout. Donnie Baseball turns into Donnie Bulldog.

"I always felt the field was where you could be what you wanted to be," Mattingly said. "You have to get yourself in the frame of mind that's best for you. It's game time, you know?"

Catcher A.J. Ellis chuckled and chose his words carefully.

"He's extremely intense," Ellis said. "He's very interested in balls and strikes. He makes sure the umpire knows his interpretation of the strike zone might be different than the umpire's that night."

In other words, he's frequently barking at the umpires.

This is the part of Mattingly to which players connect.

"Once the game starts, he's still got that player mentality," pitcher Clayton Kershaw said. "He's pretty competitive. You definitely see why he was a successful baseball player."

Mattingly's calm demeanor in the clubhouse makes the players comfortable. His intensity in the dugout is what earns their respect. They feel as if he's protecting them.

When the Dodgers brawled with the Arizona Diamondbacks on June 11 at Dodger Stadium, Mattingly was fighting alongside them — literally. At one point, he tossed Diamondbacks bench coach Alan Trammell to the ground.

"It definitely drives us to see he's engaged and see he's in the fight with us," Ellis said.

That's what the players say they mean when they call him a players' manager.

"You definitely need a guy that's there with you, not a guy who kind of wants to distance himself from the players and be an authority figure," first baseman Adrian Gonzalez said.

Mattingly downplays the talent he had as a player. He feels his determination and smarts are what transformed him from a 19th-round pick into one of the most iconic of all New York Yankees. It's what he tries to pass on to his players.

Mattingly said he manages the way he asks his players to play — with constant focus and attention to detail, regardless of the situation. That's why Mattingly was screaming at the home plate umpire at Coors Field in Denver in early September.

The Dodgers were up, 10-8, against the Colorado Rockies. The lead appeared safe. Even if they lost, it wouldn't have mattered much. The Dodgers' lead over the second-place Diamondbacks in the NL West was at 12 games. But Mattingly had to say something when watching a couple of potential third-strike calls go against closer Kenley Jansen.

"Strike five!" Mattingly shouted sarcastically toward home plate.