It all seemed so automatic way back then, when Jansen faced three batters, struck them all out and saved the game for Clayton Kershaw.
The Dodgers asked Jansen to save another game for Kershaw on Wednesday. Jansen faced five batters, gave up two hits and a walk, and the Dodgers removed him before he could face Fernando Tatis Jr.
Think about that: With the game on the line, the Dodgers did not want the man ostensibly listed as their closer to face perhaps the most frightening batter on the other team.
Of the Dodgers’ three postseason saves, Jansen has one. There is little the Dodgers have seen this October that should persuade them to grant the three-time All-Star another save opportunity.
“I’m going to keep thinking through it,” manager Dave Roberts said.
Jansen earned the save in the Dodgers’ postseason opener against the Milwaukee Brewers, but his control and his velocity were so alarming that the team used rookie Brusdar Graterol as the closer the next day. On Tuesday, in the division series opener against the San Diego Padres, Roberts let Jansen finish the ninth inning, but he did not let him start the inning, even with a four-run lead.
On Wednesday, the Dodgers gave Jansen a three-run lead and asked him to get three outs. By the time the inning was over, Joe Kelly had replaced Jansen and walked Tatis and Machado before retiring Eric Hosmer for the final out.
“Never in doubt,” Kershaw joked. “That’s how Joe Kelly rolls.”
The Dodgers exhaled and escaped with a 6-5 victory, and they could advance to the National League Championship Series as soon as Thursday.
The lasting image of Wednesday’s game, of course, is of Cody Bellinger’s poster-worthy catch, leaping high above the center-field fence to rob Tatis of a home run. For longtime Dodgers fans, the more poignant image might be Roberts striding to the mound in the ninth inning, to remove Jansen with the game hanging in the balance.
“There wasn’t a conversation,” Roberts said. “I chose, at that point in time, to go to Joe.
“My love and respect for him certainly hasn’t changed. He feels terrible. He wants to be the guy. He’s proven it time and time again. But I know he’s thrilled we won a baseball game, a big ballgame.”
Jansen’s trademark is a mixture of confidence and defiance. Did he try to persuade Roberts to let him stay in the game and get that third out?
“No,” Roberts said.
Graterol had gotten four outs, one to finish the seventh inning and three more in the eighth. He had thrown seven pitches in all. Roberts said he did not consider letting Graterol finish the game, because this season the Dodgers had not asked him to finish an inning, sit idle while the Dodgers batted, pitch another inning, sit idle again, then pitch again.
For the ninth inning, Roberts summoned Jansen.
“That part of the order, I like Kenley there, with a three-run lead,” Roberts said. “I expected him to get those outs.”
Think about that too: The Dodgers wanted Jansen to pitch to the bottom of the Padres’ order, with the maximum cushion allowable in a save opportunity.
He failed. If he had been able to catch rather than deflect a line drive off the bat of Jake Cronenworth — on the 11th pitch of the at-bat — he would have retired the first two batters. But the Padres rallied for two runs, and Jansen’s velocity went down as his pitch count went up.
Thirty pitches to get two outs was too much.
After the game, Roberts was asked if he was concerned about the Dodgers’ late-game pitching.
“I wouldn’t say concerned,” he said. “We’ve got to continue, all of us, to keep being better and make pitches and, when your name is called, be ready to get outs.”
The Dodgers could call the name of Graterol, or of Blake Treinen. The new three-batter rule prevented the Dodgers from replacing Kelly with a left-hander to face Hosmer, but a lineup that leans left-handed could encourage the Dodgers to try lefties Adam Kolarek or Jake McGee in the ninth inning. And, depending on how the team deploys its remaining starters, the late-game options could be expanded to include Tony Gonsolin, Dustin May and Julio Urías.
The Dodgers are undefeated in the postseason, one victory from advancing to the next round of the playoffs. They could have as many as three days off before the NLCS, which could allow them time to reconfigure their bullpen. The team with the best record in baseball seems to have a solid plan for everything, except how to secure the final three outs.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.