For the first time in his major-league career, a decade-long period of stable excellence, Kenley Jansen was heartily booed at Dodger Stadium on Wednesday. The fans, after years of cascading the closer with cheers, flipped their tone when they watched Jansen surrender a tying home run to Toronto Blue Jays first baseman Rowdy Tellez. It was the latest installment in an unsettling season for the former All-Star. The dissent had been building up. It boiled over Wednesday.
“I get it. Boo me,” Jansen said before the Dodgers’ 3-2 walk-off win over the Blue Jays on Thursday. “Yeah ... I’d boo myself. I didn’t want the results. I was [hurting] myself out there.”
The reactions, from spectators and performer, did not derive from a poor outing in late August with the Dodgers holding a gigantic lead in the NL West. Los Angeles emerged with a 20-game lead in the division anyway while no other division leader in majors boasted one in the double digits. The game was irrelevant. But in the backdrop sits this question: Can the Dodgers seize another pennant in a weak National League and topple an elite American League team to win the World Series with 31-year-old Kenley Jansen as their closer?
That question can’t be answered until October. But this weekend could provide an approximation when the New York Yankees, owners of the second-best record in baseball, descend on L.A. for a marquee three-game series the entire industry will shift its focus to. It could be a World Series preview. It will be a chance for Jansen and the Dodgers to test themselves against a fellow behemoth.
Before that, the Dodgers (85-44) spent Thursday night concocting their 12th walk-off win over a less formidable AL East opponent after an eight-inning offensive slumber.
The rally began with Max Muncy working a leadoff walk. Two batters later, Cody Bellinger hit a one-out double to put the Dodgers’ first two runners in scoring position since the third inning. Corey Seager followed with another double to score both runners before Enrique Hernandez, two days after coming off a three-week stint on the injured list, floated a line drive to center field to score Seager and conclude his bobblehead night with his first career walk-off hit.
“I was trying to stay short, trying not to do too much,” Hernandez said.
Kenta Maeda’s single in the third was the Dodgers’ only hit of the night until the ninth. On the mound, the right-hander was strong over six innings. He limited the Blue Jays to two runs on four hits and a walk while striking out nine. The Blue Jays (52-78) scored in the second inning on Derek Fisher’s RBI groundout and in the sixth when 20-year-old Vladimir Guerrero Jr. hit a first-pitch curveball for his 15th home run.
That was it for Toronto against Maeda. But Jacob Waguespack, in his seventh career start, was better. The right-hander held the Dodgers to Maeda’s hit, one walk, and a hit batter in seven scoreless innings. The Dodgers were silenced until they brewed more ninth-inning dramatics to improve to 51-16 at home, increase their division lead to 201/2 games, and reduce their magic number to 14.
“We’ve been doing it all year,” Bellinger said.
The win developed without Jansen emerging from the bullpen. The right-hander’s next appearance will come sometime this weekend against the Yankees, the next challenge in a season that has become about adjusting to a thorny reality in preparation for October.
After successfully relying on his cutter so much to dominate for so long, Jansen, recognizing the pitch is not as lethal anymore, has begun acquiescing to the Dodgers’ brass, mixing his pitch selection and sequencing to become more unpredictable. The evolution started with throwing sliders more frequently at the beginning of the campaign. Over the last month, the repertoire has included more four-seam fastballs.
The evolution is a sign of Jansen coming to a realization and it has provided challenges. It requires better preparation, more thinking and improved execution. Manager Dave Roberts noted it’s similar to the modifications Clayton Kershaw, another 31-year-old pitcher coming to terms with new limitations, has effectively implemented this season. Roberts, however, indicated Jansen has been more reluctant to expand.
“No, I don’t think so,” Roberts said when asked if Kershaw’s success has left Jansen more open to accept changes. “It should but I don’t think that’s landed with him.”
“They booed me last night, that’s fine, boo me. At the end of the day, I’m here trying to help the team win a championship and I’m going to make them cheer.”
Jansen said he temporarily forgot about his new blueprint Wednesday. He started the outing by striking out Randal Grichuk on three cutters. It was a brief flashback to vintage Jansen. He explained the moment duped him.
“Sometimes I get myself in trouble because when I [blow by] hitters like that, three pitches, [it’s] like, ‘Ah [shoot], I got it today. Let’s go,” Jansen said.
Tellez, a left-handed batter, was next. Jansen threw him three consecutive cutters to begin the at-bat, falling behind 2-0 along the way, before offering a four-seam fastball. A cutter, four-seam fastball and cutter followed. The eighth pitch of the clash was a 3-2 cutter in off the plate. Tellez reacted as if he knew it was coming, tucking his hands in to swat it into the right-field pavilion. Jansen unloaded obscenities as Tellez trotted around the bases. It was Jansen’s sixth blown save in 32 opportunities and bloated his earned-run average to 3.70.
“It’s a transition,” Roberts said. “The more conversations we have, I think he’s understanding that you can still be just as effective as you have been in the past.”
After Wednesday’s game, after Muncy bailed him out with a walk-off home run, Jansen was in Roberts’ office for another conversation. They had one last week about Jansen’s previously light workload and decided he would be used at least once per series, even if it meant appearances in non-save situations.
The discussion was less about baseball. Jansen said he used the time to vent. Anger, he explained, has consumed him too often this season, one that has included more failure than he’s accustomed to. He said he wants to have fun and love the game again regardless of the results.
“They booed me last night, that’s fine, boo me,” Jansen said. “At the end of the day, I’m here trying to help the team win a championship and I’m going to make them cheer.”