How Kenley Jansen Returned to Form After Losing Dodgers' Closer Role

 si.com  10/18/2020 03:38:23   Tom Verducci
Oct 17, 2020; Arlington, Texas, USA; Los Angeles Dodgers relief pitcher Kenley Jansen (74) reacts to the last out in the ninth inning against the Atlanta Braves during game six of the 2020 NLCS at Globe Life Field.

Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

ARLINGTON — Kenley Jansen unfolds like a giant origami crane when he throws a baseball. Slowly, first from an erect position with his 6'5" frame, his limbs go this way and that in the deliberate, methodical manner of the hardware inside a grandfather clock. The danger of it is when any piece of this mechanical unfolding goes askew, which is why two days before the National League Championship Series began Jansen no longer was the Los Angeles Dodgers' closer and was in need of some long-distance help.

On Oct. 10, Jansen threw an inning in a simulated game here at Globe Life Field with a man standing behind a screen at third base holding a cell phone camera pointed at him. The man was shooting video from the “open” side of Jansen’s delivery to send to Rick Honeycutt, the former pitching coach of the Dodgers, and Charlie Hough, Jansen’s pitching coach in A ball when the Dodgers converted Jansen from catcher to pitcher.

The origami crane was broken. On Oct. 7 against San Diego, Jansen threw 23 cutters that averaged just 89.1 mph, his lowest average velocity in 440 career games in which he threw more than 10 cutters. Manager Dave Roberts took away Jansen’s title of closer and expressed gratitude that Jansen said he would work in any role while trying to get fixed.

Jansen is a beloved figure in the Dodgers’ clubhouse, a standup guy who wouldn’t know an excuse if it were handed to him. Around that time, the Dodgers were holding a hitters’ meeting. Mookie Betts decided something besides breaking down the other team’s pitchers needed to be said.

“Guys, Kenley is hurting right now,” Betts said. “If you have the chance to give him some love, just do it. Just touch him. Because if we are going to get where we want to go, we need him.”

Jansen was back on that Globe Life Field Saturday, this time to close NLCS Game 6. It marked only his second time in a month making back-to-back appearances. The last one was the NLDS blowup against the Padres with that 89.1-mph cutter. And just like the night before, Jansen pitched a one-two-three ninth inning. All the springs, flywheels and gears hummed and purred with Swiss precision.

The story of how the Dodgers got Jansen back is a story in miniature of how the Dodgers got themselves back into the NLCS. With a 3–1 win in Game 6, primarily behind the old-fashioned, grip-it-and-rip country-hardball pitching of Walker Buehler, Los Angeles forced a Game 7 in a series they trailed two games to none and three games to one.

Like Jansen, the Dodgers are a proud, battle-tested team. Most of these Dodgers will be playing in their third Game 7 (a win over Milwaukee in the 2018 NLCS and a loss to Houston in the 2017 World Series). This will be the 64th postseason game managed by Roberts, who took the job only in 2015. That’s more postseason games managed than Tommy Lasorda or Walter Alston.

Just when it appeared the Dodgers were broken, Betts made a game-changing catch in Game 5 and Buehler allowed Atlanta nothing in Game 6, not even when the Braves filled the bases with nobody out in the second inning.

“This sounds odd,” Buehler said. “I’ve never felt that calm in a baseball game in my career, especially that spot. Barnesy steered me through it.”

For the next 10 pitches, catcher Austin Barnes called nothing but fastballs. Buehler pumped in every one of them between 97 and 99 mph. He struck out two batters then pulled a slider out of his back pocket to get a broken-bat grounder to get out of the inning.

“I’ve failed before,” Buehler said, who in his postseason debut in the 2018 NLDS with the bases loaded walked the pitcher and served up a grand slam—in the second inning against the Braves. “That failure doesn’t scare me anymore. There’s a different feeling when you’re not afraid of that failure.”

Buehler worked so hard Roberts pulled him after six innings and 89 pitches.

“He had emptied the tank,” Roberts said.

Los Angeles Dodgers starting pitcher Walker Buehler (21) reacts after a strike out in the sixth inning against the Atlanta Braves during game six of the 2020 NLCS at Globe Life Field.

Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

The manager scripted the last three innings to get to a Game 7: Blake Treinen, Pedro Baez and Jansen, the latter having been an unthinkable choice exactly a week earlier on the same mound.

Honeycutt and Hough poured through the video to figure out why Jansen had lost two to four miles an hour on his cutter, the difference between closing games and mopping them up.

“They know me better than anyone, so why not?” Jansen said. “The staff here does a great job—[pitching coach] Mark Prior and everybody. But those guys know me better than anybody. And give credit to Mark and the coaches here for being all for it. Some coaches might feel threatened if you go outside for help.”

Jansen’s former coaches found the flaw in the delivery. The timing of his unfolding was off. When Jansen takes the ball out of his glove and his glove hand reaches out, he drops the ball behind him while sinking into his back knee. At his best, there is even a slight pause before he brings the ball up, a kind of switching of gears from load to release. Honeycutt and Hough noticed that the timing of this separation between front side and back side was just a tick off.

“So what was happening was my arm was lagging behind my body,” Jansen said. “So it was more like I was pushing the ball with more arm than throwing with my whole body.”

Jansen continued to fine tune the timing. He threw a bullpen before Game 4, a rarity for a relief pitcher. He was lights out in Game 5, getting five swings and misses, one short of his season high on the cutter. He warmed in the seventh inning of Game 6, an unusual method for a guy lined up to get the ninth inning. But all week, Jansen was locking down the right timing to that delivery.

He was ready for the ninth inning Saturday. He took care of it in order with six pitches, all of them strikes.

“This has been a tough, challenging year for him from a lot of different perspectives,” Roberts said. “In some perspectives it has been one of his best seasons.”

Jansen is 33 years old. He and Clayton Kershaw are the only players on the active roster who have been around for all eight postseasons following the run of division titles. The Dodgers in this window are 8-7 facing elimination. Jansen has pitched in 13 of those past 15 elimination games. Since allowing two runs in his first elimination game, a win against St. Louis in the 2013 NLDS, Jansen has thrown 16 2/3 scoreless innings in 12 appearances in games with the season on the line.

He may get a chance in another one in Game 7 Sunday. Against recent odds, Jansen is again a trusted end-game option for Roberts.

Oct 17, 2020; Arlington, Texas, USA; Los Angeles Dodgers relief pitcher Kenley Jansen (74) celebrates after defeating the Atlanta Braves to win game six of the 2020 NLCS at Globe Life Field.

Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

Roberts likes to talk about how the game, as if some omnipotent cosmic force, rewards players who care and work hard, especially the kind of work that is unseen behind the cameras and microphones. Jansen is one of those players. Roberts feels the unseen benevolent forces of baseball are taking note of how Jansen got here.

“The game,” he said, “is honoring him.”

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