Kenley Jansen is an evolving pitcher in a familiar role: closing for the Dodgers
The seventh consecutive division title was already clinched. Their place atop the National League standings was already sealed. The Dodgers were just waiting for October to start playing consequential games again. But they found another reason for a postgame celebration last week before the regular season came to a close.
It happened in the visitors’ clubhouse at San Diego’s Petco Park. It was low-key but meaningful. Kenley Jansen had just become the 30th pitcher in major league history to secure 300 career saves. He was the fifth to accumulate the total with one team. So when they gathered in the room after the win, teammates showered Jansen with beer, making sure to avoid splashing his freshly tightened braids.
“It was just spontaneous,” catcher Russell Martin said. “He told me after the game, ‘That’s 300.’ I was like ‘Oh ... that’s cool, man.’
The milestone was a reminder of Jansen’s improbable sustained success this decade. He was signed as a catcher out of tiny Curacao, failed at that, and was converted into a dominant cutter-chucking reliever. He was given the closer job in 2012 and hasn’t relinquished it.
Jansen, 32, acknowledged he knew the milestone was imminent. He gave himself time to appreciate it. But he was already thinking about the outing in a different context.
“To me what it means most is getting myself ready to get better and to get into the playoffs and try to help our team win a championship,” Jansen said. “That’s what it means most.”
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Jansen has spent the last eight months getting himself ready for the playoffs. The entire 162-game season was a rehearsal. It was about finding a rhythm and trying to hold on to it tight as he confronted a humbling reality: He couldn’t rely on blowing cutters by hitters anymore.
He was forced to learn how to pitch to succeed. He gradually mixed in more sliders and two-seam fastballs. Inconsistency plagued him. The result was his worst season. He finished with a 3.71 ERA. He blew eight saves in 41 chances. Both were career worsts.
“He finds the timing, he finds the sequencing and we see the life and the execution,” Dodgers bullpen coach Mark Prior said. “And then he kind of loses it a little bit and then he’s fighting to get it back again. That’s the process, the circle. That’s where his frustration is.”
The struggles spawned internal questions about his role and whether the Dodgers could give the ball to someone else in the ninth inning. That isn’t the plan -- not yet at least.
“I know Kenley is our closer,” Dodgers manager Dave Roberts said after the team’s workout Tuesday. “I don’t see that as an option.”
The plan could always change and the Dodgers have options. The bullpen the Dodgers will carry for Game 1 of the National League Division Series on Thursday won’t resemble the unit they featured for chunks of the summer. While the relief corps was the team’s weakest link, it was still effective; the Dodgers ranked second in the National League with a cumulative 3.85 ERA and third with a 4.3 WAR. The unit in October will be an upgrade filled with hard-throwers capable of missing bats at a high rate.
Julio Urias will be unleashed as a reliever after spending the season limited to an unusual role. Kenta Maeda was transitioned from the rotation to the bullpen again and is a weapon against right-handed batters. Adam Kolarek, acquired at the trade deadline, has shut down left-handed hitters. Dustin May and Tony Gonsolin are hard-throwing rookie right-handers who could make the roster. A combination of those players will join Pedro Baez and Joe Kelly, the two other constants in the bullpen, to serve as the bridge to the ninth inning.
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“Our guys, I feel, can get both left and right out,” Roberts said. “And they’re all high-leverage guys.”
Jansen, the group’s most accomplished performer, is the biggest question mark. Three years ago, when the Dodgers and Nationals met in the 2016 NLDS, he was the best reliever in baseball. In the decisive Game 5, he threw 51 pitches over 2 1/3 scoreless innings to keep the Dodgers’ lead intact. He was at his peak. He enters this postseason a different pitcher.
“I think that the outside voices, noise, distractions, were starting to bleed into his head,” Roberts said. “As far as sequencing, opinions on his performance, and we got him back to eliminating that. And some self-induced. Most of it is self-induced to be honest with you.”
Last Wednesday, hours before recording his 300th save, Jansen sat in Roberts’ office down the hall from the visitors’ clubhouse at Petco Park. They discussed how his numbers on the second day of back-to-back appearances weren’t pleasant. They talked about Jansen having something to prove. Roberts told him he would have a chance if a save situation arose.
That night, Jansen retired the three batters he faced. He threw 11 pitches. His cutter touched 95 mph. It was a throwback performance and the first time he recorded a save on consecutive days since May. With it, he reached 300. The accomplishment was a reminder of his tremendous success. It was worth celebrating. His mind was on October.
“I never lost confidence in myself,” Jansen said.
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