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Dodgers closer Kenley Jansen is on track after three years on shaky ground

Kenley Jansen throws a baseball
Dodgers pitcher Kenley Jansen is 0-1 with a 1.45 ERA and nines saves, striking out 21 in 18 2/3 innings this season.
(Ted S. Warren / Associated Press)

The angst that accompanied Kenley Jansen’s entrance into games for the past three seasons has dissipated as the confidence in the Dodgers closer has grown.

Jansen may not be back to his 2017 level of dominance, when he went 5-0 with a career-low 1.32 ERA and 41 saves, striking out 109 and walking seven in 68 1/3 innings, but the 33-year-old right-hander is close enough for the Dodgers to feel secure again with a narrow ninth-inning lead.

“It’s feeling pretty automatic when he gets the ball right now,” pitcher Clayton Kershaw said after Jansen struck out two of three batters, both with 96-mph sinking fastballs, to nail down a 4-2 win over the Arizona Diamondbacks on Wednesday night, “so that’s a great feeling.”

Jansen spent the past three years on shaky ground, going 9-9 with a 3.34 ERA, the 6-foot-5, 265-pounder’s inability to maintain his mechanics producing wild variance in the velocity and command of his trademark cut-fastball — and his results.

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When Jansen’s fastball dipped to 89 mph early in the playoffs last October, the Dodgers essentially lost faith in him and turned to left-hander Julio Urias for the final nine outs of the National League Championship Series Game 7 win over Atlanta and the final seven outs of the World Series clincher over Tampa Bay.

But there is no closer controversy and virtually no fan uproar over Jansen’s job status this season. He is 0-1 with a 1.45 ERA and has converted nine of 11 save opportunities, giving up just five hits and striking out 21 in 18 2/3 innings. His only statistic of concern is 15 walks.

Signed after being released by the Tampa Bay Rays, Yoshi Tsutsugo made his debut in the Dodgers’ 9-1 win over Arizona Diamondbacks on Tuesday.

Jansen’s cut-fastball is averaging 91.5 mph with 14 inches of vertical drop and 6.7 inches of horizontal movement, according to Baseball Savant, close to his 2017 marks of 12.6 inches of vertical drop and 7.1 inches of horizontal movement.

He has increased the use of and sharpened the command of a two-seam sinking fastball that he began throwing in 2017, averaging 93.2 mph and touching 97 mph with the pitch this season.

Jansen struck out Josh Rojas and Eduardo Escobar with 96-mph sinkers for the first two outs of the ninth inning Wednesday night, drawing satisfaction from the radar-gun readings on the Dodger Stadium scoreboard.

“It felt great — trust me,” Jansen said. “It’s frustrating because you know it’s always there. The last couple years have been weird. I try to get [the velocity] up there, and I struggle with it. Then it happened in the playoffs. I went from 89 mph to 95-96 mph, then back to 89. You know it’s in there, but it’s been a struggle.”

Jansen credits Brandon McDaniel, the team’s director of player performance, with a tweak in his winter workout regimen that has led to his resurgence.

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Kenley Jansen, on the field out of uniform, tosses a ball
Kenley Jansen throws during warmups before a game against the Angels on May 9 in Anaheim.
(Alex Gallardo / Associated Press)

McDaniel suggested Jansen scrap some of his heavy weight-lifting for more distance running, jumping and agility drills in an effort to be more flexible and athletic. Two days after the World Series, the two got to work.

“I stayed in L.A. the entire offseason and didn’t miss one day,” Jansen said. “It’s trusting in B-Mac, continuing his program, his process. I gave it a try, and it’s paying off big-time right now.”

Jansen said he experienced a “light-bulb moment” when his cut fastball hit 95 mph while striking out two of three batters in the ninth inning of an April 11 win over the Washington Nationals.

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“It really clicked against Washington, that’s when I felt everything in sync and my upper body was following my lower part,” Jansen said. “I got that feeling like when I was throwing the ball good a couple years ago, and you just try to hold onto it.”

That has always been and will continue to be a challenge because of Jansen’s size.

Albert Pujols is an established baseball great, but if he was willing to be a bench player for the Angels, why is he now playing for the Dodgers?

“Kenley is a big guy, and we’ve seen his velo fluctuate over the last few years,” Dodgers manager Dave Roberts said. “When he’s doing things right and synced up with his delivery, the ball has some unique characteristics, and there’s swing and miss. I just want Kenley to keep doing what he’s doing.”

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Wednesday night’s save was the 321st of Jansen’s career, moving him to 20th on baseball’s all-time list. Only two pitchers — Mariano Rivera, who saved 652 games for the New York Yankees and Trevor Hoffman, who saved 601 games for the San Diego Padres — had more saves with one team.

“It’s awesome because stuff like this doesn’t happen often, especially with bullpen guys — they get bounced around quite often,” Jansen said. “I’m thankful to be part of this organization. I’ve spent half of my life with this organization. It’s a blessing, and I’m not going to take any day for granted.”


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