Kenley Jansen finds relief in role as Dodgers’ closer

Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

CHICAGO — It was a running gag with the Dodgers earlier this season. They would stretch a three-run lead to four, eliminate a save situation, then rush to the bullpen monitor in the dugout to watch Kenley Jansen react.

A.J. Ellis, the team’s former catcher, said Jansen would be “moping and pouting” on the bullpen mound, disappointed as a competitor that he could not perform his assigned task, disappointed as a potential free agent that he could not improve his statistical portfolio.

Those days seem long ago.

Jansen, 29, threw a career-high 51 pitches to help save the Dodgers in Game 5 of the Division Series, though he didn’t actually get a save. Sunday night he did earn one, preserving the Dodgers’ 1-0 victory in Game 2 of the National League Championship Series. But he again extended himself beyond the norm, warming up for possible use in the seventh inning and then striking out four while pitching a perfect eighth and ninth.

The Cubs’ Aroldis Chapman, another potential free agent, twice has failed to convert six-out saves this postseason, though one of those attempts began with none out and two on, the other with none out and the bases loaded.

Jansen fared better under slightly less trying circumstances with a one-run lead in Game 5 against the Nationals, escaping a none-out, one-on jam in the seventh, then taking the game to the ninth, only to be rescued by Kershaw.

Remember when the Dodgers nearly acquired Chapman in December, a move that likely would have reduced Jansen to a setup role? Chapman is probably the more desirable free agent — he’s left-handed and throws 100-mph plus — but Jansen seems better suited to the true fireman’s role that, at least in the postseason, is becoming more in vogue.

Let’s not take this too far: It’s easy to be one for all and all for one in October, when the games matter most. But the Dodgers say that Jansen is indeed a different teammate now, not that he was ever a bad one.

Third baseman Justin Turner said, “He’s matured a lot. He’s come a long way.” Ellis, referring back to Game 5, added, “What Kenley did spoke volumes. He put a lot on the line, risked a lot and went out there and did that for his team.”

“Kenley has evolved in a way that is unique among the different relief pitchers that I’ve been around,” Friedman said. “Just his trust, desire and willingness to help win as many games as possible has been infectious with the rest of our team.”

The turning point, perhaps, came on June 4 at Dodger Stadium. The Dodgers, with Jansen warming, scored three runs in the eighth to increase their lead to 4-0. Jansen then opened the ninth by walking Freddie Freeman and making a throwing error to allow him to advance to second. Freeman then took third on a foul fly out to right before Jansen struck out Nick Markakis and Tyler Flowers to end the game.

Ellis noticed that night that the Dodgers’ fun rallying point — “let’s increase our lead, ruin the save situation!” — had started to affect Jansen. At one point, the catcher said to the closer, “This game is not over. This is how you get paid right here. You want to dominate and strike out the best hitters in the game. Go do that.”

Ellis said he reinforced the message in a sitdown with Jansen the next day, telling him, “The industry is not paying for saves anymore; the industry is paying for dominance.” Jansen did not recall the specific conversation, and said that his primary goal always was to help the team. But he spoke highly of Ellis, whom the Dodgers traded to the Phillies on Aug. 25 in a deal that brought them another backup catcher, Carlos Ruiz.

“A.J. and I had a lot of conversations. A.J. always kept my mind right,” Jansen growth. “Every time I felt my mind was going in a different direction, A.J. was there for me, keeping my mind straight. He helped me a lot. He helped me grow up in this game.”

The save rule, though, has created a monster in more ways than one, not only changing the way managers run games, but also the way closers perceive their own values.

Both Friedman and Dodgers manager Dave Roberts used the same phrase when asked about the desire of a potential free agent to build his save total, saying they “totally get it.” But teams are indeed changing the ways they use and pay relievers; the Yankees awarded free-agent left-hander Andrew Miller a four-year, $36 million contract after the 2014 season even though he was not a closer.

Jansen, in Game 5 against the Nationals, said he was not thinking about free agency, only about “being sick and tired of getting eliminated in the first round.” The Dodgers had lost the DS in each of the previous two seasons, the NLCS the year before that. Still, Jansen’s appearance in the seventh inning did not materialize out of nowhere. He had been building toward it all season.

“In one of our first conversations, I talked about giving him at least a half-dozen one-plus outings so he could prepare for the postseason,” Roberts said. “He was open to that. As I held up my end of the deal to prepare him, once we got to the postseason, I told him there might be two-inning, six-out situations. He said, ‘Whatever you need.’

“The day of (Game 5), I asked his thoughts on pitching earlier in the eighth inning, knowing I might want to use him in the biggest part of the game, the toughest part of their lineup. He told me, ‘Whatever you need.’”

Roberts indeed prepared Jansen as promised, using him for more than one inning six times during the regular season; Jansen had only one such outing the previous season, only three the season before that.

And so the story comes full circle.

Amazing how different everything might have been, if the Dodgers’ proposed trade for Chapman had not collapsed due to his domestic-violence incident, which earned him a 30-game suspension.

Some players believe that Jansen was unhappy the Dodgers even considered such a deal. Jansen said no, he just wanted the front office to tell him what was happening. It still bothers him that after he underwent a procedure to address an irregular heartbeat in Oct. 2012, former GM Ned Colletti signed Brandon League as a free agent.

“I wasn’t disappointed (by the proposed Chapman trade),” Jansen said. “I just told Andrew, ‘Be honest with me, with what you’re going to do.’

“I feel like I was missing that earlier in my career when I went down with my heart and they put another closer in there. They told me I was still going to be the closer, but signed Brandon League. Right there, I felt my trust was kind of shaken. If you’re honest with me, I have much respect for you. At the end of day, all I’m trying to do is help the team win.”

And now look at him.

Jansen is starring in the postseason, sacrificing for his team, raising his reputation to another level.

“On this stage, when you see a player who is unselfish, it gives you the trust to invest in that player,” Roberts said.

Which, of course, is what Jansen wants.

“Kenley’s been unabashed about his free agency,” Ellis said. “He’s been the most open guy to talk about free agency that I think I’ve ever played with. He’s very excited, really looking forward to the process.

“He’s kind of Zack Greinke-esque – the highest bidder gets me. He’s like, ‘This is my one chance to get paid. I’ve earned the right to go and get the highest contract I can get.’”

Still, Jansen is not ready for that moment just yet.

“When it comes to free agency, the time will come,” he said. “But I’m playing for one thing. Playing to try to win the World Series. All the years I’ve been playing, all I think about is winning the World Series.”