Column: Dodgers could use Kenley Jansen in something other than traditional closer role
Through the first two games of this National League Division Series, the alarm bells haven’t sounded. The earth hasn’t shaken. The volcano hasn’t erupted.
In other words, Kenley Jansen hasn’t pitched.
When the time comes for Jansen to emerge from the Dodgers’ bullpen in the best-of-five series against the Washington Nationals, who knows what will happen. The Dodgers certainly don’t.
The last time Jansen pitched was Sept. 28. If he pitches Sunday in Game 3 at Nationals Park, he’ll be making his first appearance in eight days.
The inactivity adds a destabilizing element to what was already a highly volatile situation. Jansen’s eight blown saves in the regular season were tied for the second most in the major leagues.
The sense of impending disaster isn’t new.
Jansen also inspired such feelings last year, when the once-extraordinary closer started a noticeable decline that continued this season. The difference now is that the Dodgers are in position to do something about it.
Jansen doesn’t have to close. Nor should he if manager Dave Roberts thinks Julio Urias, Joe Kelly, Kenta Maeda or some other reliever would be more likely to shut down the Nationals.
Hyun-Jin Ryu started the All-Star Game and had the NL’s lowest ERA, but he had no problem getting pushed back to starting the NLDS Game 3 against the Nationals.
Matchups should dictate who pitches when. If Clayton Kershaw can relinquish his longstanding role as the Game 1 starter, Jansen can pitch the eighth inning instead of the ninth.
There are indications he might.
Before every postseason game, Roberts is obligated to speak at a news conference. The manager also has a less formal question-and-answer session with the team’s beat writers, including Jorge Castillo of The Times.
In the most recent of these smaller gatherings, Roberts told reporters he wanted to be flexible with how he uses Jansen.
“I could see an eighth-inning situation,” Roberts said.
Roberts downplayed the significance of the potential move, insisting Jansen still is the closer.
“Don’t read too much into it,” Roberts said. “There’s no demotion.”
In previous seasons, such disclaimers were unnecessary.
Such as when Jansen entered the game before the ninth and pitched more than one inning, which he did 12 times in 32 appearances over the last four postseasons. Roberts said he wouldn’t ask Jansen to do that anymore.
“He’s not going to go multiples,” Roberts said.
Nor was it necessary for Roberts to explain that Jansen was still the closer when he entered games in the eighth inning to pitch to the middle of the lineup.
But the heart of the Nationals’ order consists of Adam Eaton, Anthony Rendon and 20-year-old phenom Juan Soto. Eaton and Soto bat left-handed and it seems improbable that Roberts would call on the inconsistent Jansen to pitch to them, especially with the left-handed Urias available as a late-inning option.
Asked if Jansen might be used in a non-save situation against a predominantly right-handed-hitting segment of the Nationals’ lineup, Roberts responded in the affirmative.
Jansen converted his last three save opportunities, and Roberts argued that his willingness to pitch before the ninth inning was indicative of his confidence.
“This is as good as a place he’s been in in two years,” Roberts said.
“His focus,” Roberts said. “Mentally.”
Nationals outfielder Gerardo Parra decided one day this season it was time to change his walk-up song to home plate. “Baby Shark” has since become a sensation.
Roberts continued, “This is the best mind frame he’s been in. And so that speaks to his openness to pitch whenever there are important outs to be had. So he understands that. That’s very telling. … He’s our closer, but that doesn’t mean that there aren’t important outs in the eighth inning that we need to get.”
The question is whether the Dodgers still define the term “closer” as they have since Jansen took over the role in 2012.
As it applied to Jansen, the designation encompassed more than pitching the ninth inning. The word meant something closer to bullpen ace. It symbolized his perch as the team’s No. 1 reliever, and Roberts deployed him as such.
Maybe Roberts still considers Jansen that, and maybe if Eaton, Rendon and Soto are due up, Roberts will summon Jansen.
A couple of months ago, while Jansen was mired in a slump, I wrote the Dodgers had to stick with him as their closer. The Dodgers had to let him work his way back into form because they had no other options. But they do now. And just as how they determine their lineup and how they line up their starting pitchers, they have to make their bullpen decisions based on what they think gives them the most favorable matchups.
That could be Jansen. Or that could be someone else.
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