Clayton Kershaw picked up the save on Thursday evening to shut the door on the Washington Nationals in Game 5 of the National League Division Series, giving the Los Angeles Dodgers their 11th franchise National League Championship berth, but Kenley Jansen‘s gutsy 51-pitch relief outing was one of the most intrepid pitching performances by a Dodger in postseason history.
Dave Roberts deserves kudos for going against the grain and using his closer early in the seventh inning, a plucky move from a rookie manager who arguably lost Game 4 of the NLDS after a series of poor bullpen management decisions. The unconventional choice to go to Joe Blanton, his setup man, in the third inning after pulling starter Rich Hill after 55 pitches — four fewer than Jansen’s final tally — immediately sent a message to opposing manager Dusty Baker: The Dodgers were not going to go down with his best arm waiting in the bullpen, avoiding a Zach Britton meme waiting to happen.
After old friend Chris Heisey‘s pinch-hit two-run home-run off Grant Dayton in the seventh inning brought the Nationals within a run of the Dodgers’ lead, Roberts threw out conventionalism and went rogue. It was a moment of brilliance, one that should be in the back of the minds of MLB managers in the future when their game is on the line and they are contemplating whether to save their closer for the ninth inning, a frame that may or may not be more decisive than an earlier situation in the game.
Roberts turned to his best reliever — his second-best pitcher on the team — in the seventh inning. Jansen had never came into a game that early, and he had never thrown more than 42 pitches in a game. It was a bold move that paid off with champagne dividends in the end. Jansen only allowed one hit in 2 1/3 innings before Kershaw took over in the ninth.
It wasn’t easy. He struck out Jayson Werth on a full-count and whiffed Anthony Rendon with the bases loaded to preserve the one-run lead in the seventh. In the eighth, he allowed a leadoff walk to Stephen Drew of all people. Even though the former catcher was running out of gas, he got a big out from Danny Espinosa on a popup thereafter. Pedro Severino hit a fly ball to Joc Pederson in center field for the second out, and Jansen went to the auxiliary tank to strike out Michael Taylor to end the inning.
After getting a big strikeout of Trea Turner to start the ninth, Kenley walked Bryce Harper and Jayson Werth and was running on fumes. That’s when Kershaw entered to save the day and Kenley’s effort, and when Kershaw ended the game with public enemy number one, he embraced Jansen and said, “I got your back, man. I got your back.”
The two @Dodgers' closers: Kenley Jansen & Clayton Kershaw talk with @jonmorosi after their team's HUGE win. https://t.co/7XBfFK2ItA
— FOX Sports: MLB (@MLBONFOX) October 14, 2016
The Dodger bullpen has been the backbone of a team. A team that used a record-number of pitchers and suffered a plethora of injuries to their starting rotation. It’s a bullpen that had once been the weakness of the team the last time they reached the NLCS in 2013, and who always seemed like a Pedro Baez flat fastball away from disaster. The 2016 bullpen was instead a force to be reckoned with, and the man who anchored the relief corps was none other than Jansen.
Kenley, in his final contract year with the Dodgers, will deservedly be paid very well this off-season. His dominance over his seven-year career with LA hasn’t been appreciated enough, even overlooked by the national media. In 2016, Kenley was as dominant as ever, and his 47 saves put him in the Dodger record book ahead of Eric Gagne. A career-high 104 strikeouts with a minuscule 11 walks over 60 2/3 innings cemented Jansen’s place amongst the most elite relief pitchers in baseball. His career-best 0.670 WHIP, 13.6 strikeout per nine and 9.45 strikeout-to-walk ratio finally earned him some well-earned recognition and an All-Star nod as well. Jansen certainly got the national attention on Thursday in Washington, but Dodger fans have known for a long time how good he really is.
Terry Francona‘s utilization of Andrew Miller in Games 1 and 2 of the ALDS along with Roberts’ choice to go to Jansen early in the NLDS series finale hopefully will evolve the stale philosophy of using your best reliever for the final three outs of the game and diminish the importance of the save statistic.
The Dodgers need only four more wins to clinch their first World Series berth in 28 years, and it will be a tough battle against the Cubs. It’s good to know that Roberts will do whatever it takes to get 27 outs, even if it means rewriting the rules. The only role that should be defined for Jansen and the rest of the Dodgers should be Champion.