Dodgers closer Kenley Jansen got Christian Yelich to swing through a 90-mph cut-fastball for the final out of Wednesday night’s 4-2 victory over the Milwaukee Brewers, his strikeout finishing a strong three-man relief effort that sealed Game 1 of the best-of-three National League playoff series.
He did not look pleased.
Jansen accepted a congratulatory handshake from catcher Will Smith but did not crack a smile as he greeted the rest of his teammates behind the mound. In fact, the look on Jansen’s face was more of a scowl.
The reason seemed clear. Jansen completed a hitless ninth inning in which he walked one by whiffing the 2018 NL most valuable player, but it was with subpar stuff and little command, a combination that won’t play as well as the Dodgers go deeper into October.
“It was good to see him get the job done,” manager Dave Roberts said afterward. “It just didn’t seem like the stuff had the teeth that I’ve seen in recent outings. I’m going to go back and look at the video.”
The eight cut-fastballs Jansen threw ranged from 86-90 mph and averaged 88.1 mph, a significant drop from his 91-mph regular-season average velocity, according to Fangraphs.
Jansen recorded the first two outs of the inning on sliders, Eric Sogard flying out to shallow center field and Keston Hiura grounding out to shortstop.
But he walked pinch-hitter Jace Peterson, a career .227 hitter, on five pitches, a slider and four cut-fastballs, bringing the tying run to the plate in the form of Yelich, who had singled and doubled in his previous two at-bats.
Jansen got ahead with a nice cut-fastball that Yelich took for strike one, but his next four pitches were balls, none close to the zone.
The first, a slider, was way outside. The next, a four-seam fastball that was also outside, was swung at for a strike. Jansen then threw a 90-mph cut-fastball that was well above the strike zone, but Yelich swung through that one too, a strikeout that seemed more like a gift than a conquest.
“The cutter, there were a couple throws that had some life, but it just didn’t have the life in the zone,” Roberts said. “The breaking ball was cast more than I’ve seen it. So we’ll see. Again, I don’t know as much until I really look at it.”
The Dodgers have aspirations well beyond this wild-card series. They won their eighth straight division title, finished with the best record (43-17) in baseball, scored the most runs and allowed the second-fewest runs.
They believe this is the deepest, most balanced and most powerful team they’ve had during this lengthy run, and anything short of a World Series championship will be a disappointment.
So this is not a time for your closer to be struggling, for there to be any doubt in the manager’s mind when he hands the ball to Jansen with a lead of one or two runs in the ninth inning.
Jansen, slowed by COVID-19 in June, had a solid if not spectacular season, going 3-1 with a 3.33 ERA and 11 saves in 27 games, striking out 33 and walking nine in 24 1/3 innings. He had two blown saves.
But the right-hander had back-to-back rough late-season outings, giving up two earned runs and three hits, including a homer, in 1 1/3 innings of a 10-9 win over Arizona on Sept. 8, and five earned runs and six hits without recording an out in a 7-5 loss to Houston on Sept. 12, an outing he called “a nightmare.”
As dominant as Jansen has been for much of his 11-year Dodgers career, he has not been lights-out the past three Octobers. He suffered a blown save in Game 2 of the 2017 World Series, a 7-6, 11-inning loss to the Astros, and the loss in Game 5, a 13-12, 10-inning defeat.
A hamstring injury and an irregular heartbeat marred his 2018 season, when he went 1-5 with a 3.01 ERA, more than doubling his ERA of 1.32 in 2017, and he blew two saves in a five-game World Series loss to Boston.
Jansen went 3-1 with a career-worst 3.71 ERA in 2019 and was so unreliable that he stood in the bullpen while Joe Kelly loaded the bases and gave up a 10th-inning grand slam to Howie Kendrick in a decisive 7-3, 10-inning loss to the Washington Nationals in Game 5 of the NL division series.
A three-game series leaves virtually no margin for error. Jansen notched the save Wednesday night, but if the Dodgers advance, the competition will stiffen, and opposing hitters won’t be as forgiving as the Brewers, who have one of the worst lineups in baseball.
One reason the Dodgers feel more confident about their title chances this season is they have the deepest and most versatile bullpen they’ve had in years, giving Roberts some attractive options if Jansen stumbles.
Roberts hopes Jansen is up to the task. If not, the manager may have little choice but to turn to right-hander Blake Treinen, who went 3-3 with a 3.86 ERA in 27 games this season and combines a nasty 97-mph sinking fastball with an 89-mph slider and 94-mph cut-fastball.