It just never ends. For what feels like the 2,000th time in the 2019 season, Kenley Jansen has had a brief uptick that resembles his prime…only to come crashing to a halt with another rough outing. On Wednesday night, a surefire win against Tampa Bay slipped away when he quickly blew a 6-4 lead in the ninth.
What makes this grind truly endless is that after every collapse by Jansen, no matter how bad, Dave Roberts reassures the press that Jansen must remain the closer. He reiterated that stance yet again after the 8-7 loss to the Rays, emphasizing Jansen’s overall body of work.
The Dodgers lose an absolute HEART-BREAKER 8-7 as Kenley Jansen blows the save with a 2 run lead. pic.twitter.com/kROu3vq88p
— Dodgers Nation (@DodgersNation) September 19, 2019
It’s a claim with evidence both for and against. Kenley’s good outings have been good, including a dominant strikeout of Pete Alonso and a four-out rescue in the past week. But on Wednesday, he reached a new career-high with his eighth blown save on the year. That is impossible to ignore.
I am not here to evaluate why Jansen is struggling, nor to excoriate him for it. That has been done constantly by every Dodgers fan, blog and news outlet. We here at Dodgers Nation are no exception.
All the same, this latest disaster (against a team L.A. could even see in the World Series) still prompts that question to be asked yet again: What to do with Kenley Jansen? What is the ideal solution to the closing issues the team has struggled with all year? There’s only two weeks left of the regular season, so that solution is truly one for when it matters most in the playoffs.
Recently, I made the case for using surplus starting pitching as much as possible in October. I noted how Houston and Boston’s respective abandonments of Ken Giles and Craig Kimbrel worked in their favor. Once those two showed they didn’t have it, they were swapped for starting pitchers instead.
It’s a strategy I still believe must be followed. To be clear, this means I believe Kenley is still the closer in October. If it’s a save opportunity in any round, regardless of the run margin, I expect to hear the crunchy keyboards of “California Love” blasting either from the Dodger Stadium speakers or in my mind in pavlovian fashion.
But here’s the catch: he has no room for error. And I mean absolutely none. He’s going to have to speedrun Dark Souls with no extra lives. Should he so much as have a prickly outing, let alone a blown save, he must be swapped out for somebody else when it’s suitable.
The first option is conceivably Joe Kelly, given he hasn’t been used in the game and is relatively fresh. The second, as per my aforementioned article, is an extra starting pitcher like Tony Gonsolin, Kenta Maeda or Dustin May. Maybe even Clayton Kershaw, given the situation allows it like in the 2016 NLDS and 2018 NLCS.
The Kershaw example is especially salient, as both of those closing performances were prefaced by Jansen effectively being the setup man. His effort in 2016 was especially heroic.
For comparison, let’s look at Craig Kimbrel’s shaky October last year for Boston. In all three rounds, he had at least one instance where he put his team in a needlessly precarious spot. He would have blown game four of the ALCS were it not for Andrew Benintendi’s heads-up, all-time legendary catch. He even made game four of the World Series in Los Angeles interesting after Boston’s seemingly insurmountable rally.
Even though his predicament against the Dodgers was the least stressful, it was clear Alex Cora had seen enough. In the game five clincher, even with a relatively secure 5-1 lead, game one starter Chris Sale was called upon to plow through the final three outs.
Reflecting on that championship run, I’ve often said to myself that the Sox were unbelievably lucky the fickle nature of October baseball didn’t bite them even once in any of those moments. It was a risk that more or less paid off. But Jansen is a different scenario. He already has a rough history in the World Series that Kimbrel didn’t possess.
It’s one thing to stick by Kenley through these absurd peaks and valleys in a regular season where the Dodgers have dominated almost nonstop, their playoff hopes never in doubt. But in order to make a hopeful third straight World Series trip the charm, the Dodgers cannot afford to make the same old mistakes they did the past two years.
This includes Roberts’ use of Jansen, pushing him for six out saves frequently in the World Series. In case you need reminding, he’s had four such attempts on the biggest stage, and it’s worked just once: game six in 2017. Otherwise, Marwin Gonzalez, Jackie Bradley Jr. and Steve Pearce tagged him to create grisly misadventures into the ether the Dodgers could have done without.
In 2019, Roberts will stick with Jansen from the start of the NLDS, as he should. But if that doesn’t work at any point (which, honestly, I believe is inevitable), Doc must emulate A.J. Hinch and Alex Cora and readjust accordingly.
We all want the big man to succeed, and purge his many struggles of the past two seasons in the best way possible. But he is not beyond reproach, and the stakes next month are too unbearably high to let him have the ball unconditionally in high-leverage scenarios. If he is to be the closer all month long, he must earn it, plain and simple.