ARLINGTON, Texas — After retiring the final batter with a 94 mph fastball on Friday night, and striking out the side, Kenley Jansen glared at the Los Angeles Dodgers‘ dugout with an intensity rarely seen from the personable right-hander. The meaning behind it, Jansen said, was basically, “Let’s go!”
To the rest of the Dodgers, it represented something else: Kenley Jansen — the good Kenley Jansen — is back.
Jansen recorded the final three outs of Saturday’s 3-1 win over the Atlanta Braves in Game 6 of the National League Championship Series. This time the lead was by only two runs, half the cushion of his Friday outing, representing his first save since the Dodgers’ first postseason game 17 days ago. Jansen, who faced the bottom of the Braves’ order was helped by a sliding catch from Joc Pederson to open the inning, then got routine flyouts from Nick Markakis and Pablo Sandoval. Six pitches, three outs to force a Game 7.
“If we wanna get to where we wanna be, and holding that trophy at the end of the year, we’re gonna need him,” Dodgers third baseman Justin Turner said. “He’s gonna be a big part of it. Two huge outings, not only for us but for him personally. And you can just see the confidence he has on the mound, attacking guys. That’s the Kenley Jansen I and all of us in there know and love.”
Jansen wasn’t bad this season — he finished with a 3.33 ERA, 33 strikeouts and nine walks in 24 1/3 innings — but once again he wasn’t consistently dominant. The velocity on his cutter began to dip below 90 mph towards the end of the regular season, and he began the playoffs on unstable footing.
After he failed to protect a three-run lead against the San Diego Padres in Game 3 of the division series, Dodgers manager Dave Roberts temporarily removed him from high-leverage situations. His next appearance was with a 14-run lead in the sixth inning of Game 3 of the NLCS. But Roberts noticed a smoother, more repeatable delivery in that outing. After he struck out the side to easily hold a four-run lead in the ninth inning of Game 4, Dodgers shortstop Corey Seager saw someone who was pitching confidently again.
On Saturday, Jansen threw his cutter 90 to 91 mph and mixed it with a two-seamer that neared the mid-90s.
“The game’s honoring him,” Roberts said of Jansen. “I couldn’t be more happy and proud of him.”
Jansen has spent the past few weeks searching to get his upper half and his lower half in sync, a continual problem for someone with a 6-foot-5, 265-pound frame. A few days ago, through conversations with longtime pitchers Charlie Hough and Rick Honeycutt, both of whom still have ties to the organization, Jansen was able to rediscover the clean, simple delivery of his early years. The consistency, he believes, is starting to come.
“Ain’t no roles in the playoffs,” Jansen said when asked about being temporarily removed as the team’s closer. “It’s, ‘When can you be in the best position to help your team win?’ I’ve been here for a long time, and it’s nothing else to have a ring here with the organization. That’s the last thing I feel like I need to accomplish here. We want it. We want it for everyone, and the fans deserve it, and it’s about winning a championship here.”