No bad blood? Kenley Jansen, Freddie Freeman discuss budding Dodgers-Braves rivalry
Kenley Jansen’s first appearance of the 2022 season was both familiar and strange.
Familiar because he pitched in the ninth inning Friday night. Because his velocity climbed as his outing went along. Because some bad luck, in the form of a tight strike zone and a couple of cue shots, produced queasiness before he escaped.
Strange because of everything else.
It was his first time jogging to the mound from the home bullpen at Truist Park in right-center field. His first time taking the mound to Ludacris rapping through “Welcome to Atlanta.” His first time, after 12 years pitching for the Dodgers, wearing the Atlanta Braves’ home whites.
Kenley Jansen grew up rooting for the Atlanta Braves. When they made him an offer and the Dodgers asked him to wait, he decided to go with his boyhood favorite.
“It’s like getting to the big leagues again,” Jansen said.
On Saturday afternoon, Jansen donned a T-shirt hammering home his move. Last season, the four relievers at the back end of the Braves’ bullpen began calling themselves “The Night Shift” during the club’s World Series run. T-shirts featuring the four pitchers were made.
New T-shirts were designed once Jansen joined the crew last month. He wore his with pride.
“I’m telling you, man, this bullpen is special,” Jansen said. “It’s crazy. It’s one of the best bullpens I’ve been on.”
The four original members of “The Night Shift” — Will Smith, Tyler Matzek, Luke Jackson, and A.J. Minter — received their World Series rings a few hours later as part of a pregame ceremony.
Jansen watched. His former team was trampled on in the Braves’ path to the title in the National League Championship Series. Freddie Freeman, a franchise cornerstone in Atlanta over the last 11 years, wasn’t there. The first baseman now plays for that team the Braves trampled.
“Believe me, I still say ‘our’ and ‘we’ talking about the Braves,” Freeman said last week. “It’s going to take a while.”
Dodgers and Braves might not be a full-blown rivalry just yet. The San Francisco Giants remain the Dodgers’ nemesis. The San Diego Padres are like the annoying little brother. The Braves have their foes in the National League East. But few regular season series this year will be hyped as the two between the two contenders. The six games will be must-watch television on a national scale.
“I don’t think we care much in the clubhouse, but I think rivalries, so to speak, different things, are good for the game, for sure,” Dodgers pitcher Clayton Kershaw said last week. “If it creates more buzz, whatever, that’s fine with us.”
The clubs have met in the postseason in three of the last four years. The last two encounters came in the NLCS the last two seasons. The Dodgers won in 2020, overcoming a 3-1 deficit in the Texas bubble en route to their first World Series title in 32 years. The Braves won in 2021, toppling the favorite Dodgers before claiming their first championship in 26 years.
Then Freeman and Jansen changed sides in a span of 48 hours last month. Freeman was hurt by the Braves’ decision to not re-sign him. Jansen preferred to stay in Los Angeles but said he shrugged off the disappointment, though he admitted he found it strange watching Craig Kimbrel close out the Dodgers’ win Friday on television.
“I’m not mad,” Jansen said. “Why would I be mad? Knowing Andrew [Friedman], he does everything he can to help his team with in a championship. [Braves general manager] Alex Anthopoulos is the same way. Andrew tried. I can’t be mad.”
Then, on Wednesday night, Braves star Ronald Acuña Jr. in an interview said he had “a lot” of clashes with Freeman and won’t miss him. His words prompted a response from Freeman on MLB Network the next day.
“There’s no bad blood,” Freeman said before Acuña’s comments. “There’s nothing. It’s just two organizations that respect each other that are winning organizations right now.”
Adding Freeman solidified the Dodgers as National League favorites again. The oddmakers and computers tabbed them as the team most likely to win the World Series. For good reason. The roster is loaded. The lineup is arguably the deepest in the majors.
The Braves, meanwhile, have launched their attempt to win back-to-back titles under the national radar with a roster that should be better than the one that won the championship. They lost Freeman but replaced him with All-Star first baseman Matt Olson. They added Jansen and Collin McHugh to bolster the bullpen. Acuña, the team’s most talented player, is expected to return next month from an anterior cruciate ligament tear he suffered last July as Atlanta pursues its fifth straight NL East title.
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“All I know is every year that I’ve been here it’s been that and even the two years prior to that, when the Braves won the division, it was like that,” Braves catcher Travis d’Arnaud said.
“So, yeah, it’s nothing new. We’re a great team. We have no holes. I’ll match us up against anyone.”
On April 18, they’ll match up against the Dodgers in Los Angeles for the first time in 2022. The meeting will be hyped. The atmosphere will undoubtedly reach another level. It’ll be emotional for the first baseman on one side and the closer on the other. It’ll be both familiar and strange.
“Everyone wants to beat the Dodgers,” Jansen said. “Now I’m on the other side, of course I want to beat them, as much as I love them. That organization will be, for the rest of my life, in my heart. But now that you’re on the other side, you want to beat them.”
After former Angels shortstop José Iglesias recorded his first hit since the death of his father, Dodgers first baseman Freddie Freeman embraced him.
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