LOS ANGELES – It sounds a little silly, or perhaps presumptive, and Kenley Jansen smiled when he said it, because he knew too, and didn't wish this to be taken wrong. The man's been a professional pitcher for barely four years, a closer off and on for about a year and, given that, there are names one simply does not say out loud.
But, facts are facts here, and tendencies are tendencies, and a cutter's sometimes a cutter, so when the Boston Red Sox came to town, a team Jansen knew very little about, there was but one scouting tape of one closer Jansen had to see.
"I'm not Mariano Rivera," Jansen said. "But we have a similar pitch. I had to see how he pitched against Boston."
"It is definitely crazy," he said. "I've learned a lot from that guy, watching him pitch. How he goes through a game. The control he has of that game."
They met once, earlier this summer, when Rivera and the Yankees came through L.A. Before batting practice, while the Yankees were stretching, Dodgers coach Jose Vizcaino led Jansen across the field and had him shake hands with the great Rivera.
"An awesome guy," Jansen said. "So down to earth."
They spoke for five minutes. Standing among all those Yankees, it was soon time to go, and Jansen shook Rivera's hand and turned away with a thousand questions left in the air.
"It wasn't a good time to ask him anything," he said.
On Friday night, not yet a month since meeting Rivera, and hours from studying Rivera again, Jansen struck out Mike Carp, struck out Jacoby Ellsbury and made Shane Victorino pop up in the ninth inning. The Los Angeles Dodgers won, 2-0, their 46th win in 56 games. And Jansen, who became the club's regular closer again at about the same time the Dodgers started winning, had his 22nd save. He has struck out 92 of the 244 batters he has faced, over 64 2/3 innings. He has walked 11, one of them intentionally. Since the fourth week in June, opposing hitters are batting .130 against him.
The pitch is a cut fastball, but not because it is supposed to be. The pitch is a four-seam fastball, gripped to promote maximum velocity and precision, except there is something about Jansen's delivery, something about his arm or wrist action, something about the way his fingers blow through the outside of the baseball, all coming out of that 6-foot-5 body, that makes the pitch run maybe six inches over the final couple feet of 60.
"It just cuts by itself," Jansen said, like it's a tiny little miracle.
He can throw it in the mid-90s. And just to make the world a more difficult place for hitters, Jansen has taken to a two-seamer, designed to come in like his cutter but dart right instead of left. Beyond that even, he has learned a good, hard breaking ball from bullpen coach Chuck Crim, a slider-curve ball hybrid that locked up Victorino in the ninth inning Friday.
Five years ago, he was a catcher who couldn't hit much but wouldn't let go of his dream to become a big-league player, and to make it his way. His older brother, Ardley, spent the better part of a decade as an outfielder in the Atlanta Braves' organization (and the Italian League), and the closest he'd come was 12 Double-A at-bats. Kenley intended to make it with a mitt and a bat, but was just OK with both, and had been passed by a catcher everyone loved – Carlos Santana.
The Dodgers organization, and particularly assistant GM DeJon Watson, believed Jansen had a better chance with his arm. Jansen resisted.
"I always wanted to be a catcher," Jansen said.
"But if the bat doesn't come around…" Watson would say.
"I thought I could make it," Jansen said.
"Do you trust me?" Watson would ask.
Jansen asked for his release.
"Go home and sleep on it," Watson would tell him. "I'm not going to release you."
Jansen relented. Watson sent him to A-ball, to Charlie Hough.
"He was the one who taught me how to pitch," Jansen said of Hough. "He gave me joy doing it. He put a new life in me."
Jansen stood on a mound and took hold of a baseball, lay his fingers across the seams just so, and threw. Soon, Jansen was throwing 97 mph. And one day Hough mused, "That ball's got a little cut on it."
"It looked like he belonged out there," Crim said.
On July 30, 2009, Jansen debuted as a pitcher in the fourth inning of a Cal League game at Lake Elsinore Diamond Stadium. He threw six pitches, all of them strikes. He struck out a batter. A week short of a year later, at 22 years old, Jansen pitched the seventh inning of a game at Dodger Stadium.
Through two scary episodes with his heart and finally a several-hour procedure last year to cauterize an atrium, and then the Dodgers' decision to open the season with Brandon League as their closer, and then a daily journey to become a pitcher, to understand it, to feel it, Jansen is beginning to post elite numbers. He is strong, and growing confident, a critical element to some of the best baseball – over two months – many have ever seen.
On Saturday morning he sat in front of his locker, another game ahead, and marveled at the places the game has taken him. From Curacao first, the son of a small construction company owner, to a life in baseball, to, of all things, a pitcher's mound and the ninth inning.
What has he learned? What does he make of it all?
"You never know where your talent sits," he said. "It's humbling. It's been pretty awesome."
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