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Column: Dodgers’ Kenley Jansen remaining upbeat in ability despite struggles

Dodgers closer Kenley Jansen rubs up a new baseball in the ninth inning against the Washington Nationals in Washington, D.C. on Friday.
Dodgers closer Kenley Jansen rubs up a new baseball in the ninth inning against the Washington Nationals in Washington, D.C. on Friday.
(Erik S. Lesser / EPA)

Kenley Jansen didn’t have to be told this is how he’s viewed. He already knew.

“That’s good,” he said, nodding his head.

Good?

“I like it,” he said. “Think what you want to think. It’s your opinion. I don’t care. I know who I am.”

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The smile and laugh that accompanied the declaration was evidence that Jansen is the same upbeat fellow he’s always been. But is he the same pitcher?

In the aftermath of a trade deadline at which the Dodgers failed to upgrade their spontaneously combustible bullpen, the question is more pertinent than ever. Winning a World Series will require the kind of superhuman effort from Jansen that he hasn’t produced in at least a couple of years.

“Yeah, definitely,” Jansen said. “It always starts with me.”

His earned-run average is up to a career-high 3.59, the velocity of his trademark cutter is down to a career-low 92 mph, but the former all-world closer had solid talking points Thursday, which was a start. Better for him to be talking optimistically about the coming months than taking refuge in the dining room the way slumping players often do when reporters are permitted in the clubhouse.

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“Whenever I become deadly again …” he started one sentence.

He opened another with, “Whenever I get back that consistency …”

Notice he didn’t say, “If.”

And when – not if – Jansen regains the form that made him baseball’s second-highest-paid closer of all-time, he said, “The same people who say, ‘Kenley’s done,’ will say, ‘Kenley’s back.’”

By the time the playoffs start, Jansen will be 32. He’s already endured some particularly laborious years, as he’s pitched 102/3 innings in each of the last three postseasons.

Jansen, who posted a combined 1.58 ERA in 2016 and 2017, disputed the widespread notion that he’s in decline. Rather, he argued that hitters have improved.

“You have to make an adjustment,” he said. “There’s a lot more stuff available to hitters. The technology is getting so much better now.”

So if Jansen throws a first-pitch slider, he said it’s not because he’s lost confidence in his cutter. He said it’s because he knows opposing hitters likely strapped on a pair of virtual-reality goggles and studied the movement of his signature pitch.

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“The game changed,” he said.

He went as far to say that if such technology was available earlier, he never would have been able to blow cutter after cutter by hitters.

Eliminate a grand slam he gave up in a loss to the Padres on May 5, ignore a meltdown against the Philadelphia Phillies on July 16, and Jansen said, “Nobody’s saying Kenley Jansen’s done.”

Remove the two games from the ledger and Jansen’s ERA drops to 2.16.

The Joc Pederson first base experiment — a bumpy, six-week trial spawned by the Dodgers’ ability to treat the regular season as a playoff rehearsal because of their huge division lead — is over.

Still unconvinced? Jansen said that wouldn’t affect how he views himself.

“I always have that confidence,” Jansen said. “Why should I lose it? No one’s going to bring me down. It’s not going to happen. People can root against you or rip you or whatever. At the end of the day, we’re trying to win a championship here. Try to take that 1988 to make it a 2019. That’s all we care about. Why should I worry about negative stuff? You just have to be positive. If you’re going to put negative stuff in your life, you’re going to bring yourself down. Why should I bring myself down?”

He sounded certain the team’s other relievers shared his attitude.

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“We’re not worried about the noise out there,” he said.

He said he wasn’t overly concerned about the team not adding an elite arm, pointing to the improvement of Joe Kelly, as well as the possible inclusion of Julio Urias and Kenta Maeda in the bullpen.

Jansen said his focus was on setting an example for rookies such as Dustin May and Tony Gonsolin, who could be part of the team’s postseason bullpen.

“My role is to push myself harder and harder now, so when they come out here, they see me, (Clayton Kershaw) … how we prepare ourselves, how we’re working out in the gym, how we’re working out outside,” he said.

Jansen’s routine includes 45 minutes on a stationary bicycle at home before he eats breakfast. He tries to be at the ballpark by 1:45 p.m. so he can run in the outfield, lift weights, watch video of himself and study opposing hitters.

At the same time, he said he understood why fans were concerned about the bullpen.

“People aren’t seeing the results right now,” he said. “But you just have to peak at the right time.”

To Jansen, it was a matter of when, not if.


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