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Dodgers

Dodgers’ Clayton Kershaw, Kenley Jansen struggle to regain elite stuff

Los Angeles Dodgers v Milwaukee Brewers
Clayton Kershaw delivers a pitch during the second inning of the Dodgers’ 6-5 victory over the Milwaukee Brewers on Sunday.
(Dylan Buell / Getty Images)

The irritation radiated off Dodgers closer Kenley Jansen as he dressed for the bus ride to Chicago.

He lacked interest in revisiting the final innings of a 6-5 victory over the Milwaukee Brewers, the third in four games by the Dodgers at Miller Park. Jansen had collected the win after striking out the side in the ninth. But he stewed about the previous inning, when he served up a tying three-run homer to the Brewers’ Eric Thames.

“I made a mental error,” Jansen said. “That’s why I’m so frustrated right now.”

Jansen said he erred in choosing his cut fastball — the pitch he rode to three consecutive All-Star appearances and status as one of the game’s best closers — over a slider. No longer is his cutter indomitable. No longer is Jansen invincible. He has given up a run in five of his last six outings as he returns from a season with a pedestrian 3.01 earned-run average.

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Across the visitors clubhouse at Miller Park, Clayton Kershaw declined to celebrate his own outing. In his second start of the season, Kershaw struck out seven and gave up two runs, both courtesy of a fifth-inning homer from Lorenzo Cain. But he lasted only six innings, his outing cut short because he walked four of the first 11 batters he faced.

“Some days, it’s not going to look pretty,” Kershaw said. “And today definitely falls in that category.”

The victory demonstrated both the mettle and the talent contained within this Dodgers roster. Joc Pederson provided two home runs on his 27th birthday. The lineup vexed Brewers starter Brandon Woodruff. Cody Bellinger smashed a go-ahead homer off Milwaukee reliever Josh Hader in the ninth. It was the second time this weekend the Dodgers tagged Hader, a left-handed demon considered among the sport’s finest.

The offense is relentless. The pitching staff is more vulnerable. The concern stems from the two pillars of the group, who combined to squander a five-run lead Sunday.

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When the Dodgers hired Dave Roberts as their manager before the 2016 season, he inherited a staff built around Kershaw and Jansen. Kershaw was the game’s best starting pitcher. Jansen was building a case to be the game’s best reliever.

Neither can claim that mantle in 2019. Both faltered in the past two World Series. Both vowed to atone this season. Jansen committed to a more vigorous spring training after effectively skipping the Cactus League in 2018. Kershaw appears dedicated to recapturing the depth of his slider, which has shown a marked improvement in his two starts this year.

“There is something,” Roberts said, “to continuing to evolve.”

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After injuring his shoulder and his back in 2018, Kershaw struggled to generate movement on his slider. The pitch effectively became a cutter, although far less fearsome than the one thrown by Jansen. Kershaw has rediscovered the necessary bite, which explains why he generated 16 swinging strikes out of 92 pitches Sunday.

“When you need to get swings and misses and are able to do so, that’s big,” Kershaw said. “I’ll probably just now work on the consistency, more than anything.”

Kershaw did not dominate. He walked reigning National League MVP Christian Yelich in the first inning, and again in the third. He escaped a jam with two runners aboard in the first by inducing a flyout from Jesus Aguilar on an 87.8-mph slider.

“At times, he had every single pitch working,” Roberts said. “And then there were times when he couldn’t seem to find it. But when he needed to make a pitch, with the breaking ball, with the slider, or with the fastball, he did it. And that’s just a credit to Clayton.”

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The Brewers bruised Kershaw in the fifth. Orlando Arcia opened the inning by redirecting a belt-high slider into the right-field corner for a triple. Two batters later, Kershaw hung a slider to Cain, who clubbed the pitch beyond the center-field fence.

“The two pitches that I got hurt on were two of my worst sliders of the day,” Kershaw said. “That’s going to happen.”

Los Angeles Dodgers’ Kenley Jansen (74) is congratulated by Austin Barnes after recording a save dur
Closer Kenley Jansen is congratulated by catcher Austin Barnes after the final out of the Dodgers' 6-5 win over the Milwaukee Brewers on April 21.
(Aaron Gash / Associated Press)

Cain cut the Brewers’ deficit to three. There the score remained until the eighth. Pedro Baez started a fire by yielding two singles. Roberts called upon Jansen for a four-out save. The first at-bat ruined that possibility.

Facing Thames, Jansen ran the count full with five consecutive cutters. As he ruminated after the game, he chastised himself for not choosing a slider to end the encounter. Instead, Thames crushed an elevated 93.7-mph cutter.

“There are some good throws in there, the velocity is there,” Roberts said. “But he’s just been a victim of a couple pitches that he hasn’t executed quite enough.”

In the dugout afterward, Roberts and pitching coach Rick Honeycutt told Jansen to remain engaged in the game. When Bellinger victimized Hader, Jansen returned to the mound. He mowed down three batters in a row, ending the game by freezing Cain with a cutter.

Jansen pounded his chest as he walked off the mound to embrace catcher Austin Barnes. He was less jubilant inside the clubhouse.

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The reason for his anger was not hard to discern.

“I gave up a run, right?” Jansen said. “I’m a human being. I’m going to be frustrated.”

andy.mccullough@latimes.com

Twitter: @McCulloughTimes


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