ARLINGTON, Texas – In a season that's gone exceedingly well for the Los Angeles Dodgers, a late problem that popped up is causing a lot of concern: Can they still count on Kenley Jansen as their closer?
That has become an uncomfortable question for manager Dave Roberts and the Dodgers as they prepare for another NL Championship Series. Especially with something seemingly not right with the reliever who for so long was the obvious answer when it came to finishing playoff games.
“I’m very sensitive to what he has accomplished on the baseball field, as a closer and as a perennial All-Star, but we also have to look in real time, and do what’s best for the Dodgers,” said Roberts, though the manager hasn't been ready to make a definitive declaration about Jansen's role.
The best-of-seven NLCS against the Atlanta Braves starts Monday night in the Texas Rangers' new $1.2 billion stadium with a retractable roof. That is where the Dodgers, whose last World Series title was in 1988, swept San Diego in three games in the NLDS and is the neutral site of this year's World Series.
Jansen’s velocity has been noticeably down, and inconsistent, for much of the past month. The big right-hander hasn't had the same control that is so important in crucial situations.
In Game 2 of the NL Division Series on Wednesday night, Jensen needed 30 pitches to get two outs and gave up two runs without being able to finish the game. Joe Kelly then walked two batters to load the bases before getting the final out of a 6-5 victory.
After averaging 93-94 mph earlier this season, the 33-year-old Jansen rarely got above 90 mph on those 30 pitches. While there were 11 pitches of at least 90 mph, only three of them above 92 mph.
“With Kenley, I think that regardless of velocity, when he’s executing, making quality pitches, he’s as good as anybody,” Roberts said. “But then when you start not executing and missing to the big part of the plate, then it’s not as good. That’s something we’re constantly trying to figure out."
Jansen got the last two outs in a 5-1 in Game 1 against the Padres. But that was a non-save situation like five of his last six appearances in the regular season, though he did get a save when getting the Dodgers out of a bases-loaded jam in the wild-card round against Milwaukee.
Because of pitching the previous two nights, Jansen wasn't expected to be available for Game 3 of the NLDS. But there was no need for a closer in what turned out the be a series-clinching 12-3 victory Thursday night.
While Jansen hasn't been made available recently to talk to reporters, catch partner and locker mate Kelly said Jansen is handling the situation well.
“Obviously he doesn’t like underperforming, but he’s a mentally tough guy,” Kelly said. “It’s not like he’s sitting around at his locker pouting. He’s fine. ... It’s not like he’s going to be like, ‘Hey, I’m not going to pitch if I don’t pitch the ninth.’ He’s good a teammate, and he’s taking it like a man, and he knows he hasn’t thrown his best, but whenever we need him, he’s going to right there for us.”
The Dodgers' primary closer since 2012, Jansen is the team’s career leader with 312 saves and 935 strikeouts for a reliever. He has pitched in a team-record 44 postseason games with 17 saves, third-most in MLB history behind Mariano Rivera (42) and Brad Lidge (18).
Jansen converted 10 of his first 11 save opportunities this season, even after arriving late to camp because of a positive COVID-19 test. He had 22 strikeouts and a 1.20 ERA in his first 15 innings through Sept. 1.
But a week after that when Jansen got the final out in the ninth of a tie game at Arizona, he gave up three runs in the bottom of the 10th, though he wound up the winning pitcher since the Dodgers had scored four in their half of the inning.
In his next appearance four days later, Jansen gave up six hits and five runs without recording an out after coming on with a 5-2 lead to face the 6-7-8 part of Houston's batting order.
Asked bluntly this week if Jansen could be trusted in a high-leverage situation right now, Roberts responded, “Certainly leverage matters. I think I’m going to continue to watch the game, talk to the pitching coaches, talk to Kenley, I’m not going to make that decision yet.”
Roberts said he is “in a great place” with Jansen, and that they have talked, though he didn't reveal any details of those conversations.
“The one thing that I’m not concerned about is losing Kenley mentally. We have a very good relationship,” Roberts said. “All he cares is winning a championship for the city of Los Angeles. ... When he gets the baseball, I’m going to expect him to get those outs, and I know he expects the same.”
Whenever that is.
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