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Column: Dodgers stay perfect in postseason, but their ominous closer situation looms

Dodgers pitcher Kenley Jansen delivers against the San Diego Padres during the ninth inning of Game 2.
Dodgers pitcher Kenley Jansen delivers against the San Diego Padres during the ninth inning of Game 2 of the National League Division Series on Wednesday.
(Tony Gutierrez / Associated Press)

The Dodgers are the best team in the National League, but that alone doesn’t always translate to a place in the World Series.

Which is why the other part of their October odyssey is critical.

Luck is on their side.

They continued their postseason stampede Thursday night by overwhelming the division rival San Diego Padres, their 12-3 victory at Globe Life Field in Arlington, Texas, completing a sweep in their NL Division Series.

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The Dodgers ran their postseason record to 5-0, with two wins coming against a Milwaukee Brewers club that was one of the least-worthy playoff teams in baseball history and the last three against an injury-depleted Padres squad that didn’t have the pitching to compete with them.

The triumphs have been more perfunctory than noteworthy, except in one regard: They will enter the NL Championship Series against the Atlanta Braves with the justification to remove Kenley Jansen as their closer.

A day after Jansen nearly threw away a three-run lead in Game 2 of this NLDS, manager Dave Roberts was asked if he could still be trusted in high-leverage situations.

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Roberts replied, “I’m not going to make that decision yet.”

That was manager-speak for no.

The Dodgers can’t depend on Jansen to close here, they can’t depend on him to close there, they can’t depend on him to close anywhere.

That much is evident.

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Actually, that was already the case last year, which is why the franchise’s all-time saves leader was relegated to a mopup role in an elimination loss to the Washington Nationals.

The Dodgers should have made the demotion permanent over the winter, but they refrained from doing so.

Julio Urías has the arm and the stomach to close, but the Dodgers remained committed to developing him as a starter.

Blake Treinen, who was signed as a free agent, was basically a $10-million reclamation project. Brusdar Graterol, who was acquired in a trade with the Minnesota Twins, had only 10 games of major league experience.

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Andrew Friedman wasn’t about to wager his good standing with his bosses on either of them, especially when his bosses were still responsible for the final two years of Jansen’s $80-million contract.

So, the uncomfortable situation carried into this year, almost certainly with the Dodgers figuring they could replace Jansen over the 162-game regular season if necessary.

The COVID-19 pandemic changed everything.

The regular season was shortened from sixth months to two, giving the Dodgers less time to make a highly emotional move.

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Dodgers relief pitcher Kenley Jansen looks on during a game.
Dodgers closer Kenley Jansen walks off the mound during a game against the Colorado Rockies on Sept. 19.
(David Zalubowski / Associated Press)

Jansen never looked right this season, as opponents appeared to frequently barrel up his signature cutter, but he converted his first seven save opportunities and registered an ERA of 0.77 in his first 13 games. He recovered from a midseason slump and didn’t give up any runs over the last two weeks of the regular season.

When the postseason started, he was still the closer.

The Dodgers looked as if they would pay for their indecision over the offseason.

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The first two rounds of these playoffs might have spared them. Jansen’s diminished velocity against the Brewers in the wild-card round was alarming, so much so that Roberts said that while Jansen was still the closer, that didn’t mean the ninth inning was his.

The second game of the series against the Padres gave the Dodgers the excuse to make a clean break.

With the Dodgers ahead by three runs, Jansen entered the game in the ninth inning. He departed with two outs, a runner on first and the lead down to one.

The erratic Joe Kelly was called on to record the final out, something he did after walking Fernando Tatis Jr. and Manny Machado to load the bases.

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As frightening as that ninth inning was, the reality was that it couldn’t have unfolded any better for the Dodgers.

The kinds of games that cost closers their jobs are typically painful defeats. The Dodgers were provided with the evidence required to make a change without losing a game.

This will help them as they move forward.

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Problems remain, however. They don’t have a clear-cut replacement. Treinen has days when he can’t throw strikes. Graterol doesn’t miss enough bats.

Without any days off scheduled in the NLCS, Urías probably will be required to start, or pitch the bulk of the innings of a particular game, as he did Thursday.

But the Dodgers will at least be free of their long-standing obligation to call on Jansen to record the final outs. This is a victory for them, arguably more valuable than any of the five games they have won so far.

Hernández reported from Los Angeles


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