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Column: Kenley Jansen is on an inspiring comeback tear, just as I failed to predict

Dodgers relief pitcher Kenley Jansen getting ready to pitch
Relief pitcher Kenley Jansen gets set to pitch during the ninth inning of the Dodgers’ game against the San Francisco Giants on Tuesday.
(Mark J. Terrill / Associated Press)

Kenley Jansen stared down at the table in front of him as he considered the possibility.

He could be an All-Star again. He should be an All-Star again.

“The last few years, especially last year, I feel like I hit my rock bottom,” Jansen said. “That’s a big achievement, to be an All-Star [after] everything I’ve been through.”

In what could be the best comeback story in these parts since Kirk Gibson deposited a backdoor slider into Dodger Stadium’s right-field pavilion, Jansen has reclaimed his place as one of baseball’s elite closers.

He has 20 saves in 22 chances. The speed of his trademark cutter is back up in the mid-90s and his earned-run average is down to 1.38.

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So, I wasn’t just wrong, I was spectacularly wrong.

Max Muncy has a reputation for standing up to the Giants, and the Dodgers slugger lived up to expectations Tuesday, hitting a home run in a 3-1 win.

Over the winter, I wrote that the Dodgers should part ways with the 33-year-old Jansen, arguing that his stature in the organization would complicate the inevitable process of removing him as closer.

“Enough already,” that particular column began.

I doubled down in spring training, warning readers not to be fooled by Jansen’s microscopic exhibition season ERA and that someone else would be pitching the ninth inning in October again.

Dodgers catcher Austin Barnes and pitcher Kenley Jansen shake hands.
Catcher Austin Barnes and pitcher Kenley Jansen celebrate after the Dodgers beat the Diamondbacks in Arizona on Sunday.
(Rick Scuteri / Associated Press)

“Your opinions, everybody’s opinions, that I fell off or I’ve got to do better — those are just motivation,” Jansen said.

Umm … you’re welcome?

Then again, it’s not as if he had to read or hear about his disappointing performances to know he had to change.

“Definitely, I wasn’t happy with my performance last year,” he said. “It hurts, it hurts deep down, knowing that I’ve always wanted what’s best for the organization.”

Last season, Jansen was replaced as the closer in the playoffs for the second consecutive year. He watched from the bullpen as Julio Urías lived his dream of recording the final out of a World Series.

He was determined to do something about it. He wasn’t discouraged by the three-year stretch in which he posted an ERA in the 3s every season.

“I will never be a quitter,” he said. “I’m not a quitter.”

Pasadena police are investigating Dodgers pitcher Trevor Bauer over a woman’s allegation that he assaulted her. Bauer’s agent called the accusations “baseless” and “defamatory.”

Under the watch of director of player performance Brandon McDaniel, Jansen switched to an off-season workout program that emphasized more explosive movements. He also worked on further developing a slider he picked up last year from Orel Hershiser, the former Cy Young Award winner and current Dodgers broadcaster.

Manager Dave Roberts has helped by spreading out his appearances as much as possible. Jansen has yet to pitch three consecutive days, something he had done three times by this stage of the season in 2019.

Jansen, who is now in the final season of a five-year, $80-million contract, never considered whether he could benefit from a move to another team.

“If I sign a five-year extension here that I did in ’16, I’m going to give my best to this organization,” he said. “They believe in me. Andrew Friedman believes in me. [Roberts] believes in me. They never doubted me.”

Kenley Jansen threw 10 strikes in 12 pitches as the Dodgers beat the White Sox 4-3 in exhibition play.

Of how Urías closed the World Series victory over the Tampa Bay Rays, Jansen said, “I didn’t have my best, so I couldn’t be in that spot in that moment. Julio was having an unbelievable postseason, so you have to understand that part and you can’t let ego in between.”

He pointed to how he helped develop the Dodgers’ winning culture alongside the likes of Clayton Kershaw and Justin Turner.

“We built this, this winning, and it’s awesome seeing guys like Julio come and do their job,” Jansen said. “At the end of the day, we all win a championship, so we’re all a big part of it.”

And if there’s another championship, he’ll be a part of that, too, maybe in an even more important role.

Jansen pitched in 11 games this month and didn’t concede a single run. He finished June by closing both games of a two-game series against the San Francisco Giants.

The recent enforcement of rules prohibiting the doctoring of baseballs has coincided with a decline in spin rates of his pitches, but his mix of mid-90s cutters and sinkers, and a low-to-mid-80s slider, have kept opponents off balance.

“It’s allowing more margin for error with the cut fastball,” Roberts said. “To have something more in on the right-hander or running away from the left-hander with the two-seamer, or to kind of front-door or back-door a guy with a slider, is important. He is primarily going to throw his cutter, but again, just giving another thought so guys don’t hunt a certain location or pitch characteristic is only going to make him better.”

The applause-o-meter is often an unreliable tool to measure performance, but in this instance, the crowds at Dodger Stadium offer an accurate reading of the situation.

In recent years, including the start of this one, Jansen’s jog from the bullpen gates has sometimes elicited unenthusiastic responses from the stands. The franchise’s all-time leader with 332 saves, Jansen has occasionally been subjected to boos from his home crowd.

No more. In the two wins over the Giants this week, the crowd stood and roared when Jansen’s entrance song blared over the public-address system.

The Dodgers being held hitless against the Chicago Cubs served as a “wakeup call” for a team that isn’t facing the same old NL West this season.

“Of course, that’s not a good feeling to get booed,” he said. “Yes, it’s great to hear the crowd cheer. At the same time, I have to stay in the middle, don’t be too high, don’t be too low.”

His spectacular performances in the last month have reinforced that idea.

“That showed me I have to keep focus day in and day out, focus on tomorrow, don’t worry about the past and don’t worry about the future,” he said. “Continue to do that and things will be fine.”

Continue to do that and he’ll be in Colorado for the All-Star game. And who knows, maybe the closer who was declared finished by a certain columnist will have the October moment that was supposed to have passed him by.


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