A wave of relief swept over Dodger Stadium as Kenley Jansen slapped his chest in triumph. Disaster was averted. A day after the Dodgers watched the New York Yankees destroy their No. 1 starter, they limited their visitors to a solitary run in a 2-1 victory.
The reprieve was short-lived.
The uneasiness over Jansen remained, exacerbated by the particulars of his 27th save. If the consecutive strikeouts to end the game Saturday were promising displays of his resilience, the fact he permitted the Yankees to load the bases in a dramatic ninth inning further heightened concerns about his perceived decline.
The Dodgers bullpen contributed four scoreless innings to the winning effort, with performances by other key relievers offering the team ninth-inning alternatives to Jansen.
Joe Kelly pitched 1 2/3 innings, armed with a fastball that touched 99 mph.
Pedro Baez registered 1 1/3 innings, mixing in his improved changeup to strike out the side in the eighth inning.
But as much as their ticket-buying customers are calling for Roberts and the front office to make a change, there won’t be one.
And there shouldn’t be.
Jansen has to remain the team’s closer.
This isn’t as much about loyalty as it is about practicality.
This isn’t about what Jansen deserves as the franchise’s all-time saves leader, it is about the number of innings for which the Dodgers have to account.
The bottom line is this: Without Jansen, the Dodgers can’t win the World Series.
Even if a high-octane arm such as Julio Urias or Dustin May is moved into a relief role for the postseason, Jansen will have to pitch in critical late-game situations if the bullpen has to cover as many innings as anticipated. Games like Saturday’s, in which their starter pitched five innings, will be the norm in October.
If Jansen isn’t pitching the ninth inning, he will be pitching the seventh or the eighth.
Regardless of how the Dodgers brain trust chooses to deploy him, he will have to perform like the pitcher he was in previous seasons.
The best chance for that pitcher to reemerge is if Jansen stays in a role with which he is most comfortable, not if he is demoted and has to deal with the emotional and psychological aftereffects of such a move.
When Jansen slumped early last season, team officials privately acknowledged they feared he could mentally check out if he lost his job. They presumably have similar concerns now.
Jansen’s six blown saves were tied for fourth-most in the National League entering Saturday. His 3.62 earned-run average is the highest of his career.
However, the Dodgers have no choice but to allow him to pitch his way back into form. They are the rare team that has the luxury of permitting to him to do so under ideal conditions, as their victory over the Yankees increased their lead in the National League West over the second-place Arizona Diamondbacks to 21 games.
And while his latest save was more dramatic than the Dodgers would have liked, the appearance moved him in the right direction.
Taking the mound with a 2-1 lead, Jansen started the ninth inning by striking out Didi Gregorius, who fouled a two-strike bunt.
Jansen forced Gleyber Torres to bounce a grounder to where the second baseman ordinarily stands, only for the ball to reach the outfield because the infield was shifted to Torres’ pull side.
Brett Gardner also hit a grounder, this one knocked down by diving first baseman Matt Beaty. Gardner reached base on an infield single.
Gio Urshela then reached base on a fielder’s choice in which the Dodgers failed to record an out at second base.
The bases were loaded with only one out. Dodger Stadium held its collective breath.
Jansen could have buckled. Instead, he responded the way any team would want its closer to respond.
“It’s like, ‘It’s OK, pick your teammates up,’” Jansen said. “They’ve been picking me up the whole year. It’s not the first time I’ve been in that situation. At that moment, it’s not about yourself. It’s about your teammates.”
Jansen went on the attack.
He struck out Mike Tauchman on three pitches.
He struck out Gary Sanchez on four.
“That last batter, he looked really, really good,” Max Muncy said. “He looked like his old self.”
One of Jansen’s trademark cutters was clocked at 96 mph. But it was more than that.
“From where I was standing, the movement was really, really sharp,” Muncy said. “If he can find a way to get that going, we’re going to be in pretty good shape.”
Jansen is aware of how the fans perceive him, how their trust in him has evaporated.
“I love our fans,” he said. “Listen, man, as frustrated as they are, I am, too. I am with them.”
He went on to make them a promise.
“I’m going to continue to get better,” he said.
He has to. The team’s success depends on it. Either he pitches well or another season will end with someone else capturing the trophy the Dodgers have dreamed of lifting.