Fifty-one thousand people in the stadium were on edge. The Dodgers’ chance to stay in the series hung in the balance. They all knew what was coming. Joc Pederson was in the box, up 2-1 in the count. He knew what was coming. Millions more were watching at home. They knew what was coming. But, in a moment that could go on to define the Dodger postseason should it continue beyond this weekend, Kenley Jansen defied all expectations, just like he has all season.
To understand Jansen’s sequence to Pederson, it’s first worth looking at how he pitched Austin Riley to open the frame:
It was an extremely Kenley Jansen sequence, starting with six consecutive cutters. Riley swung and missed twice, but took two pitches and fouled off two more. Jansen then reversed spin, firing a sinker that backed into the zone. It caught a lot of plate, but Riley was expecting another cutter and was dispatched to the Atlanta dugout.
In stepped Joc, one of the hottest hitters on the planet. It is Joctober after all. Atlanta probably wouldn’t be in this series without him. They wouldn’t be leading this series without him. Just in this game, Pederson clubbed two singles (one hit at 112 mph), walked once, drove in Atlanta’s first run, and looked as locked in as ever.
Pederson shared a dugout with Jansen for half a decade. They’ve been on the Dodgers’ emotional roller coaster together; Pederson has been through the times when the Dodgers have lived by Kenley Jansen and the times when they’ve died by Kenley Jansen. He also knew as well as anybody that 2021 Jansen is no longer a cutter-only pitcher, as he saw first-hand as Jansen started gradually mixing in the sinker and slider over the years.
Jansen also knows Pederson as well as anybody. He’s had a front row seat in Joctobers past. He knows that Pederson can crush high fastballs better than almost any other player when he’s right, a pitch which he just relied upon to get Riley out. He’s also seen Pederson hit low spin into the stratosphere, like he did in Game 2 of this series. The two met on opposite sides of the roster twice earlier this year, one of which ended with this memorable non-homer, showing that even low cutters were not necessarily safe:
This battle was the clash of an October star at the height of his powers and one of the best closers of all time, both of whom were intimately familiar with what the other could do.
Jansen started Pederson out with a sinker, perhaps remembering the drive from five months ago:
The pitch split the plate, but Pederson was either looking for something else or wanted to watch the first pitch regardless. Jansen lived through his challenge pitch and got ahead in the count. Then, on his ninth pitch of the inning, Jansen threw his first slider:
Pederson didn’t bite, it was a non-competitive pitch. A good idea, poorly executed. Jansen apparently felt the same way as he fired the 1-1:
Jansen has thrown 176 sliders in 2021 between the regular and postseasons. This was only the 26th time he doubled up on the pitch to the same batter. This slider was better executed, the ball bouncing on the plate instead of two feet in front of it, but it wasn’t enough for Pederson to chase.
This was the moment. Everybody thought they knew what was coming. Jansen threw two straight ineffective offspeed pitches. Pederson was ready for something with velocity, something that is dangerous at the best of times and terrifying when he’s playing like this. Jansen very rarely throws said velocity low in the zone, so it would have been a pitch that Pederson likes to drive.
Jansen shimmied his hips twice, took a breath, and fired home:
Another slider. After two straight sliders in the dirt to one of the most dangerous postseason hitters in baseball, Jansen went back for a third. Of those 176 sliders this season, this was only the fourth time Jansen has thrown three in a row to the same batter. It would have been a bad pitch if Pederson was ready for it. He wasn’t. In Pederson’s mind, there was no way Jansen could have trusted his slider at that point, the prospect of falling behind 3-1 too daunting, but Jansen did. Jansen and Will Smith fooled the whole stadium (including Ron Darling, judging by the call), and suddenly the count was even.
Jansen went back to the sinker next and Pederson swung and missed, the slider still on his mind:
Five pitches later, Jansen struck out Adam Duvall and the game was over, the Dodgers lowering their series deficit to 2-1.
If the series eventually goes the Dodgers’ way, that slider to Pederson is one of those swing moments that will be remembered for a long time, much like Clayton Kershaw catching Manuel Margot at home last year. The absolute guts it takes to go for another slider in that situation cannot be understated, and nobody in the stadium was ready for it to land in the strike zone. It’s just the latest chapter in Kenley Jansen’s revival, one he looks poised to continue as long as the Dodgers can stay alive.