Kenley Jansen doesn’t need to throw another pitch to cement his status as the best relief pitcher in Dodgers history. In addition to collecting 312 regular season saves — a mere 151 more than Eric Gagne — Jansen is also the Dodgers’ all-time leader in WHIP, fewest hits allowed per nine innings and most strikeouts per nine innings.
Like any Dodgers player whose time with the team began in 1989 or later, though there is one thing missing from Jansen’s resume. And the Hollywood ending for Jansen would have him on the mound in the ninth inning tonight or tomorrow and entrusted with getting the final three outs as the Dodgers beat the Rays to win the World Series and finally end their championship drought.
But if the last month — and the last two games — are any indication, Jansen may be watching from the bullpen as someone else tries to close out a championship.
Jansen’s velocity wavered in the regular season before his grip on the closer’s job weakened in the first three rounds of the playoffs. Joe Kelly had to rescue him in the ninth inning of a 6-5 win in Game 2 of the NLDS against the Padres. Jansen earned the save in Game 6 of the NLCS agains the Braves, but manager Dave Roberts rode Julio Urias for the final three innings of the Game 7 win.
Jansen gave up a ninth-inning homer to Randy Arozarena in a non-save situation in a 6-2 win over the Rays in Game 3 of the World Series and blew the save — his record fourth blown World Series save —while taking the loss in the wild Game 4. He had the Dodgers one pitch away from victory 14 times before giving up Brett Phillips’ game-tying hit and failing to cover home plate as Max Muncy’s throw sailed past Will Smith while Arozarena scored the winning run in the Rays’ 8-7 victory.
On Sunday night, Jansen remained in the bullpen as Blake Treinen, whose only regular season save came in a 10-inning win over the Diamondbacks on Sept. 9, tossed a one-hit ninth to preserve the Dodgers’ 4-2 win.
As he has throughout the postseason, Roberts managed to praise and boost Jansen even while explaining why he didn’t utilize him in his usual spot. Roberts said both Jansen and Treinen are “…both unbelievable guys in high-leverage” and that he went with Treinen, who also pitched in Game 3 and Game 4, because he has more experience pitching on back-to-back-to-back days than Jansen.
Roberts added that Jansen “…will be ready to pitch high-leverage” situations in Game 6. Of course, what he didn’t say was that Jansen would pitch the ninth inning in a save situation.
Jansen’s uncertainty and vulnerability with a World Series clincher in sight serves as a reminder of just how regularly this happens at this time of year — and a reminder of how each season, and each postseason, reinforces just how remarkable Mariano Rivera was, and how the Yankees closer deserved to be the first unanimous inductee into the Hall of Fame.
The cutter-throwing Jansen is the closest thing to a Rivera heir. Rivera led the Yankees in saves in 15 straight seasons between 1997 and 2011. Jansen’s led the Dodgers in saves every season since 2012, a span in which the other 29 teams have had 176 pitchers — including Rivera with the Yankees in 2013, his final season — lead them in saves at least once.
But Jansen, who turned 33 last month and posted the second-highest ERA (3.33) and highest WHIP (1.15) of his career this season, appears mortal at an age when Rivera was just getting warmed up. Rivera recorded 409 of his record 652 saves following his 33rd birthday, after which he went 2-0 with a 0.58 ERA and 18 saves in 21 chances over 44 playoff appearances.
Weeks before his 40th birthday in 2009, Rivera added to his record by throwing the final pitch in a fourth World Series clincher (technically, because he actually is human, Rivera has thrown the final pitch in five World Series). No other pitcher has thrown the clinching pitch in the World Series more than twice.
And since 2010, only two pitchers have spent the regular season as their team’s closer and thrown the World Series-clinching pitch: Brian Wilson with the Giants in 2010 and Koji Uehara with the Red Sox in 2013.
In 2014, 2017 and 2018, the Giants, Astros and Red Sox went with a starting pitcher — Madison Bumgarner, Charlie Morton and Chris Sale, respectively — to get the final out over closers Sergio Romo, Ken Giles and Craig Kimbrel. Jason Motte, Romo and Daniel Hudson wrested the closers job away from Fernando Salas, Santiago Casilla and Sean Doolittle as the Cardinals, Giants and Nationals mounted championship runs in 2011, 2012 and 2019. Wade Davis was entrenched as the Royals’ closer by the time the 2015 playoffs began, but only because regular season save leader Greg Holland was injured in September. In 2016, Hector Rendon led the Cubs with 16 saves but lost his job when the team acquired Aroldis Chapman, who blew the save in the eighth inning of Game 7 before Mike Montgomery got a last out 108 years in the making.
None of Jansen’s predecessors last decade had a resume with their teams remotely close to the one he possesses with the Dodgers. And one imagines Roberts would like his ninth-inning choice to be made far easier by the Dodgers possessing a comfortable lead with three outs to go.
But a long-awaited World Series championship is on the line, and Roberts and the Dodgers’ other decision-makers are paid handsomely to make difficult decisions such as turning to Treinen, Urias or somebody else in a World Series-clinching save situation. If Jansen runs in to join the celebration instead of starting it, he’ll have plenty of company — unlike Rivera, whose singular status grows every year.