For eight innings Monday afternoon, the Dodgers paraded their potency. Walker Buehler, their self-assured rookie co-ace, was nearly untouchable. Their offense, packed with power, slugged a couple of home runs. They were outclassing the Colorado Rockies with a rousing display in Game 163.
Then Kenley Jansen jogged to the mound for the ninth inning with a five-run lead and exposed an unnerving reality the Dodgers must overcome to win their first World Series title in 30 years: Jansen isn’t the Jansen they rode to Game 7 of the World Series a year ago.
Nolan Arenado launched Jansen’s first pitch — a 92-mph cutter — over the left-field wall. Next came Trevor Story. He swatted the ninth pitch of his at-bat — another 92-mph cutter— over the wall in right-center. Pitching coach Rick Honeycutt paid his closer a visit. Angst tinged Dodger Stadium’s buzz.
Jansen retired the next three batters — the final two on strikeouts — to swiftly avoid a collapse and seal the Dodgers’ sixth straight National League West crown. The 31-year-old right-hander has been around for all six. Never has he been more scrutinized than this season.
“You know what, I’m going to talk to Kenley,” Roberts said during the club’s alcohol-drenched celebration after the game. “Obviously, he wasn’t happy with his performance, but we’re going to need him. We’re going to need him. So my confidence in him hasn’t changed. And we need him to be great to win a championship.”
Monday’s outing concluded a tumultuous regular season for the Dodgers’ bullpen anchor. Off the field, his season was in jeopardy when another episode of atrial fibrillation surfaced in early August. The Dodgers’ bullpen was a disaster during his absence. He was later advised not to return to Denver, where the high altitude is suspected to have triggered his irregular heartbeat. He is slated to undergo heart surgery in the offseason.
On the field, Jansen wasn’t the same pitcher from previous years after logging heavy workloads — 28 1/3 innings combined — the previous two postseasons. Evidence is available across the board. Jansen’s famed cutter — a pitch he threw 94.2% of the time this season — averaged 92.7 mph, slower than last season’s 93.6 mph. He gave up 13 home runs after not yielding more than six in a campaign through his first seven full seasons. His ERA jumped from 1.32 to 3.01. He struck out 4.1 fewer batters per nine innings. He issued more than twice as many walks per nine innings. His FanGraphs WAR plummeted from 3.6 to 0.4.
He was dominant in 2017. This year, Jansen, constantly battling his mechanics, was not the same from the start. The Dodgers limited Jansen’s workload in spring training, but a hamstring tweak in mid-March affected his delivery through early May and he struggled to generate velocity early.
“Just dealing with failure this year kind of motivated me to become better and great,” Jansen said Sept. 22 after a game against San Diego. “So I’ve learned a lot this year and I’m continuing to learn…I guess this year is the year of learning yourself and figuring yourself.”
The lessons continued late into the season. In that game against the Padres, he entered with the bases loaded and one out in the ninth inning. He proceeded to strike out the two batters he faced and later revealed he had implemented a tweak to his delivery designed to limited unnecessary movement.
“It was a very big situation to be doing that and I felt weird,” Jansen said. “But just seeing the swing and misses, kind of makes you feel great about it.”
Monday’s appearance did not stoke the same sentiment. Asked what happened and how he was able to settle down after yielding the home runs in the ninth inning, Jansen declined to divulge.
“It doesn’t matter,” Jansen said. “We won the division.”
But for the Dodgers to advance deep into the postseason again, Jansen’s performance will almost certainly matter. They’ll need him to lock down the ninth inning, if not more. Is he ready for a workload similar to the 16 2/3 innings he logged during last October’s run?
“If that’s what it takes, that workload, to win a championship, I’ll do it,” Jansen said. “That’s all I care about.”