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Confident and forceful, Dodgers’ Kenley Jansen tries to restore his bullpen ace legacy

Dodgers relief pitcher Kenley Jansen delivers a pitch during the ninth inning of a 3-1 win over the Atlanta Braves.
Dodgers relief pitcher Kenley Jansen delivers a pitch during the ninth inning of a 3-1 win over the Atlanta Braves in Game 6 of the NLCS on Saturday.
(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

Kenley Jansen didn’t leave the field for a long time Saturday night.

His appearance in Game 6 of the National League Championship Series was brief — six quick pitches that netted the final three outs of the Dodgers’ 3-1 win over the Atlanta Braves — a result that staved off elimination and sets up a Game 7 on Sunday night.

But before he returned to the clubhouse, he was asked to wait around for two postgame television interviews. Between them, he was serenaded with cheers from Dodgers fans.

Less than two weeks after his long and accomplished tenure as the team’s closer seemed headed for an unceremonious end, Jansen suddenly received the treatment of a bullpen ace again.

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“You can just see the confidence he has on the mound attacking guys,” teammate Justin Turner said. “That’s the Kenley Jansen I and all of us in there, we know and love.”

The Dodgers haven’t had a problem scoring against the Atlanta Braves, but they have struggled to be consistent on offense throughout the NLCS.

A week ago Wednesday, Jansen left the mound at Globe Life Field under far different circumstances, pulled in the middle of a save opportunity in Game 2 of the NL Division Series.

His cutter wasn’t sharp. His already diminished velocity had taken a nosedive. And as he quickly disappeared down the dugout steps, having let a three-run Dodgers lead dwindle to one, many wondered if he’d ever pitch an important ninth inning again.

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“I know that he’s disappointed,” manager Dave Roberts said that night. “I’ll keep thinking through it.”

Jansen kept thinking about his own game too. He threw bullpen sessions and tried to get his delivery back in sync. He sought advice from former Dodgers pitching coach Rick Honeycutt and longtime mentor Charlie Hough, the pitching instructor who helped the former catcher transition to the mound more than 10 years ago.

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Key plays from the Dodgers’ 3-1 win over the Atlanta Braves in Game 6 of the NLCS.

And he buried whatever disappointment he felt about losing his grasp on a guaranteed ninth-inning role, blocking out the “noise” from fans and pundits during a five-game stretch that saw him pitch just once — in the sixth inning of a 14-run game Wednesday.

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“When it comes to playoffs, it’s not about the role,” Jansen said Saturday morning. “It’s, when can you be in the best position to help your team win?”

After Jansen’s bounceback performance Friday and Saturday night, that might mean pitching in more high-leverage situations after all.

A night after striking out the side with 12 pitches in the ninth inning of Game 5 — a result he celebrated by giving his dugout what he called a “Let’s go, this series is not over” glare — he collected his second save of the postseason by closing out Game 6.

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With the Dodgers leading by only two runs, Braves leadoff batter Austin Riley swung at Jansen’s first pitch and lined a 90-mph cutter into shallow left field. Joc Pederson, who had entered the game in the previous half-inning, charged in to make a diving snow-cone catch. Jansen wasn’t challenged again.

Nick Markakis weakly flied out on the next pitch before pinch-hitter Pablo Sandoval ended the game with a soft lineout to left on an 0-and-2 count.

Jansen again looked toward the dugout before confidently strolling through the high-five line. Pedro Báez wrapped him up in a bear hug. Roberts bumped his fist and was surely smiling from behind his mask.

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“This has been a tough, challenging year from different perspectives, and in some perspective it’s been his best season,” Roberts said of Jansen, later insisting that some of the right-hander’s underlying numbers belied his 3.33 regular-season ERA, the second-highest of his career.

“But to continue to stay focused and be ready when called upon, the game is honoring him. Couldn’t be happier and more proud of him.”

Roberts didn’t hint at any changes to the Dodgers’ bullpen strategy. The team’s reliever decisions moving forward are still likely to be matchup-driven. But in the span of two days, their former closer is making a case to claim that title again.

After earning the final outs in two consecutive elimination games, it looks like Jansen might be back — perhaps not better than before, but certainly as confident as he’s ever been.

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“I never lose confidence in myself,” Jansen said. “I will never lose confidence. That’s the one thing. The minute I lose confidence in myself, I will stop playing this game. That’s how I felt. So the confidence is going to be there.”


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