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Closer controversy? Dodgers’ faith in Kenley Jansen on shaky ground

Dodgers closer Kenley Jansen delivers a pitch.
Dodgers closer Kenley Jansen, shown pitching against Colorado on Sept. 19, struggled with his velocity against the Brewers on Wednesday.
(David Zalubowski / Associated Press)

Kenley Jansen sat on a chair in the Dodgers bullpen, fiddling with the drawstring on his sweatshirt, then resting his hands on his legs, then crossing his arms.

When a closer sits and fidgets as he awaits the ninth inning, that is not breaking news. When the most enduring closer in franchise history sits and fidgets during the ninth inning of a postseason save situation, well, that all but screams “closer controversy.”

The Dodgers wouldn’t put it like that, of course. Dave Roberts, the Dodgers’ manager, said after the game that Jansen remains the team’s closer.

In almost the next breath, however, Roberts talked up all the options the Dodgers have. With three outs to go Thursday, and the Dodgers’ first playoff series of the year to be won, Roberts went with the rookie option. Brusdar Graterol earned the save, and the Dodgers advanced to the National League division series with a 3-0 victory and two-game sweep of the Milwaukee Brewers.

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During the Dodgers’ annual playoff runs from 2013-19, Jansen had 16 of the team’s 17 postseason saves. Clayton Kershaw had the other. The last time a Dodgers reliever not named Jansen saved a postseason game, before Thursday: 2009, when Jonathan Broxton retired the Phillies’ Chase Utley.

Yet, in two of the Dodgers’ last three postseason games, the team skipped Jansen with the game on the line. In an elimination game in last year’s division series, the Dodgers used Kershaw in relief to try to hold a lead, then Joe Kelly to try to preserve a tie. The Dodgers finally called on Jansen, but only when the game and the season were lost.

On Wednesday, in this year’s postseason opener, the Dodgers called on Jansen for the save. He delivered, but the aesthetics were unpleasant: almost as many balls as strikes, with Christian Yelich saving Jansen by swinging at pitches out of the strike zone, even as he represented the tying run. By the time Jansen finished the game, Graterol was warming up.

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Yet the Dodgers were alarmed less by the erratic control than by the decline in velocity. Jansen’s fastball, which averaged 94 mph in his best years and 91 mph this year, suddenly registered at an average of 88 mph, a career low, with one at 86 mph.

Los Angeles Dodgers relief pitcher Brusdar Graterol throws to the Milwaukee Brewers.
Dodgers relief pitcher Brusdar Graterol throws during the ninth inning of Thursday’s series-clinching win over the Milwaukee Brewers.
(Ashley Landis / Associated Press)

“It just didn’t seem like the stuff had the teeth,” Roberts said after the game.

With any dramatic drop in velocity, the first concern is an injury. Roberts said Jansen’s velocity has been down in his past four appearances, but neither Jansen nor the team training staff reported any medical red flags.

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“The facts are the facts,” Roberts said. “I just don’t know the answer.”

Before Thursday’s game, Jansen threw a bullpen session intended to refine his mechanics. Roberts said Jansen would “absolutely” remain the closer, but he paused before answering the question of whether Jansen would be available for the game.

“I’ll talk to him and see,” Roberts said.

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After the game, Roberts said Jansen had been available, but he preferred not to use him against “the same run of hitters he faced last night.” Yelich was the only hitter that batted in the ninth inning both Wednesday and Thursday.

And, yes, Roberts said, he did talk to Jansen. He said he told Jansen to “be ready for anything” and said Jansen replied that he was “all in” with whatever Roberts decided.

“It just speaks to him as a teammate,” Roberts said. “All he cares about is winning. Like I said, there’s going to be many opportunities for Kenley to close games out, but just getting the optionality to use our ’pen however we see fit to best win a game, that’s best-case scenario.

“We’ve got a lot of good options, but Kenley is still right at the top.”

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The Dodgers, behind a stellar performance by Clayton Kershaw, beat the Milwaukee Brewers 3-0 to sweep the wild-card series and advance to the NLDS.

Blake Treinen, a former All-Star closer for the Oakland Athletics, is a good option. So is Graterol, whose fastball hit 101 mph Thursday.

The absence of a lockdown closer has not stopped the last three World Series winners.

The Washington Nationals last year got their lone World Series save from Sean Doolittle, but Daniel Hudson closed Game 7, and rotation mainstay Patrick Corbin started once and relieved twice in the series.

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In 2018, the Boston Red Sox got one save from established closer Craig Kimbrel, but his October performance had been so erratic that the Red Sox eliminated the Dodgers with Joe Kelly working the eighth inning and starter Chris Sale the ninth.

In 2017, after the Houston Astros lost trust in closer Ken Giles, they got their only World Series save from swingman Brad Peacock. In their Game 7 victory over the Dodgers, they let starter Charlie Morton pitch the final four innings.

The Dodgers’ next game is Tuesday, when the division series starts. For so many years, Game 1 of a Dodgers postseason series has meant Kershaw starting and Jansen closing. In 2020, it has meant Walker Buehler starting, and we’ll see who is closing.


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