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Column: Kenley Jansen’s burden grows, and the Dodgers closer accepts it

Kenley Jansen happy to accept burden as Dodgers increasingly count on him

Closer Kenley Jansen (74) celebrates a Dodgers victory with  pitcher Clayton Kershaw after a game against the Blue Jays on May 8.

(Tom Szczerbowski / Getty Images)

His contract is expiring. His future is at risk. The next few months will chart the course for the rest of his career.

One might think Kenley Jansen, the Dodgers’ giant bearded closer of a man, would want security, safety and statistics.

Instead, he wants the ball.

“I love the challenge, man,’’ he says. “I want that challenge.’’

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One could assume he wants separation from the Dodgers’ struggling bullpen, innings that belong only to him, and the best possible chance to put on a show for suitors.

Instead, he wants to be a teammate.

 “My guys have been grinding the whole year, and sometimes you have to back them up, pick them up, do whatever it takes,’’ he says.

Kenley Jansen is admirably behaving quite unlike the average baseball player in his final season before free agency.

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It is a good deed that is not going unpunished.

With the Dodgers increasingly unable to stomach their poorly constructed bullpen, they are increasingly relying on the one guy they can actually trust, placing him at risk in the process.

Kenley Jansen, meet the four-out save.

As a reward for his ability, Jansen is sometimes being asked to push that ability to its limits. Instead of simply performing the usual ninth-inning job of an elite closer, he is being asked to rescue the Dodgers an inning earlier, getting the final out of the eighth and cooling down in the dugout before completing the ninth.

It messed with his routine. It could mess with his arm. And eventually, one has to wonder if it will mess with his future, which could affect his willingness to remain a Dodger, if the Dodgers are even willing to pay the high price to retain him.

“I know it’s not usual, but if you want to be the best, you have to do what you need to do for your team,’’ he says.

Not usual for others, but increasingly mandated for Jansen. In 19 appearances this season, Jansen has been asked to complete a four-out save on four occasions. That’s twice as many as baseball’s other top seven relievers combined. That’s also only one fewer than the number of four-out saves he attempted in the last two seasons combined,  including the playoffs.

 “I don’t worry about my numbers, I worry about trying to win a championship,’’ Jansen says.

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But those numbers took a beating last weekend in San Diego, when Jansen was asked to record two four-out saves and failed each time.

On Friday night in the ninth inning, he allowed a two-run game-winning homer to Melvin Upton Jr.  On Sunday afternoon in the eighth inning, he allowed a game-tying triple to Upton.

When asked about the situation Monday before the Dodgers’ 1-0 victory over the Cincinnati Reds, Manager Dave Roberts says he would give Jansen the ball in that situation again. And again. And he surely will, because what choice does he have?

“He realizes he’s the best person at the back end to give us that chance, and I feel good about that,’’ Roberts says. “There’s no better closer in the game, in my opinion.’’

The numbers are truly elite, as Jansen has 13 saves in 15 opportunities with 20 strikeouts and one walk in 18 innings. He ranks fifth overall in saves and his walks plus hits per innings pitched of 0.61, which would be a career low, leads all relievers with double-digit saves.

Jansen amazingly has not made an All-Star team despite averaging 40 saves over the previous two seasons, but he’s six saves from achieving more lasting recognition as the all-time Dodgers save leader, as he would pass Eric Gagne with his 162nd career save.

Yet the 28-year-old still acts like the overgrown former catcher who still can’t believe he’s being paid $10.65 million a year to throw the ball from the mound.

 “We’re not machines, we’re still human beings,’’ he says with a wide smile. “I’m young, I don’t have a lot of miles on my arm. I throw one pitch. I have a lot to learn but I know what I can do.’’

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That one pitch is a cutter, which was also the trademark pitch of future Hall of Famer Mariano Rivera, who was the last elite closer renowned for four-out saves, which Jansen hasn’t forgotten.

“If it’s good enough for Mariano Rivera, it’s good enough for me,’’ says Jansen.

Is it? One can only imagine the Dodgers attempting to sell him on signing a new contract after wearing out that arm.

Already he had been unpleasantly surprised by the organization when it traded for closer Aroldis Chapman last winter before backing out of the deal because of off-field concerns. Jansen said he would have preferred a warning phone call from management, but acknowledged that an ensuing conversation settled his fears.

“I wanted to get on the phone with Andrew [Friedman], I didn’t have that phone call before,’’ he says. “I wasn’t upset, I wanted to find out what’s going on, what are they thinking about it. After losing Zack [Greinke] they wanted to shorten the game up, I get what he was thinking.’’

Yet that aborted Dodgers trade clearly reminded Jansen that baseball was a business, which led him to announce in spring training that he wouldn’t be publicly discussing his contract during the season.

“At the end of day, you don’t have control over what they are doing, all I have control over is my career,’’ he says. “It’s a business. I appreciate everything the Dodgers did for me in my career, I’ll always feel like a Dodger, I grew up here, but whatever team I play for at the end of day, I want to win games.’’

So, as long as it lasts, embrace his hulking presence, hum along to his “California Love’’ walkout song, marvel at that one great pitch he throws every single time.

And celebrate nights like Monday, when, with Clayton Kershaw on the mound, Kenley Jansen did the one thing Dodgers fans hope he’ll do next winter.

He stayed in his seat.

Twitter: @billplaschke


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