That ninth inning was fun, huh?
After the Dodgers’ 6-5 victory over the Padres in Game 2 of the NLDS, winning pitcher Clayton Kershaw was the first on the Zoom carousel.
“Never in doubt, we had it in our hands. That’s how Joe Kelly rolls, you know,” said Kershaw, wearing a smile that can only come after immense relief. “Joe likes to make it interesting for us.”
Kershaw, though perhaps unintentionally, buried the lede. Kelly threw 19 pitches in the ninth inning, nine of them out of the strike zone, including walks to Fernando Tatis Jr. and Manny Machado to load the bases. But Kelly didn’t bury the lead, getting Eric Hosmer to ground out to end it, allowing the Dodgers, and their fans, to exhale.
The real story was why Kelly was in the game in the first place.
He entered to clean up a mess made by Kenley Jansen, who likely pitched his last save situation for a while, even if manager Dave Roberts wouldn’t yet outright say it.
Jansen entered the ninth with a 6-3 lead in Game 2, one night after recording the final two outs of Game 1. Jansen was to face San Diego’s 5-6-7 hitters.
“That part of the order, I liked Kenley right there with a three-run lead,” Roberts said. “I expected him to get those outs.”
Things started relatively well for Jansen, who struck out Wil Myers swinging. He nearly struck out Jake Cronenworth, too, but a dropped third strike on a foul tip extended the at-bat. On the 11th pitch of the battle, Cronenworth singled off Jansen.
After a mound visit, pinch hitter Mitch Moreland doubled home Cronenworth to pull the Padres within two runs.
At this point, Jansen faced the minimum three batters, and could have been pulled. He was 20 pitches in, and only one of his 15 cutters reached 90 mph. He even had one cutter at 86.8 mph, which was in the red flag zone that after Game 1 against the Brewers caused Roberts to say Jansen “had no teeth” on his pitches.
Removing Jansen here, with one out, would have likely necessitated a right-hander, since Fernando Tatis Jr. was looming as the third batter in line, after the right-handed Aaron Nola and left-handed Trent Grisham.
But instead, Jansen remained in. He got Nola to pop out in foul territory, needing only one more out to secure the win. It never came, at least for Jansen, who allowed a single to Grisham to pull the Padres to within 6-5.
That was the end for Jansen, who had a brief conversation with Roberts after coming out.
“My love and respect for him certainly hasn’t changed. He feels terrible,” Roberts said. “He wants to be the guy, and he’s proven it time and time again.”
Jansen threw 30 pitches, 23 of which were cutters. His cutter topped out at 90.4 mph, under his 90.9-mph average on the pitch during the season which was the slowest of his career. Add in the seven sinkers, and his overall fastball velocity was one of Jansen’s lowest ever.
Kenley Jansen averaged 89.7 mph on his cutter & sinker tonight, his 4th-lowest average fastball velocity of his career (incl. playoffs)— Sarah Langs (@SlangsOnSports) October 8, 2020
2 of the 3 lower average velo outings have been in 2020, too:
9/30/20 (NLWC G1) -- 88.7 mph
3/30/18 -- 89.0 mph
9/27/20 -- 89.4 mph
“I’m going to keep thinking through it. I thought there were some good throws in there,” Roberts said. “It was just a lot for him to need 30 pitches to get two outs. I know he’s disappointed as well.”
Ripping the band-aid off and changing closers is never easy, and it’s certainly not something that is going to be announced roughly 20 minutes after a game.
The Dodgers were already leaning into using matchup-based optioned to close games, with Roberts in the last week talking about Jansen being used in roles other than the ninth. Wednesday’s outing just accelerated what is likely to be a more complete change in roles.
It’s happened before. In the 2019 NLDS, Roberts didn’t use Jansen with the season on the line in Game 5, instead opting for Kelly. That, famously, was a series-ending disaster, unlike Wednesday when despite the 49-pitch ninth inning the Dodgers still won the game.
The ninth inning is still a problem to be solved, and the Dodgers do have options.
They used Brusdar Graterol to close out Game 2 against the Brewers. Graterol recorded four outs on only seven pitches to get through the eighth inning on Wednesday, but Roberts said he didn’t feel comfortable having Graterol go up and down for a third inning, something he’s never done before.
Pedro Báez, Blake Treinen, and Adam Kolarek saved games for the Dodgers during the regular season. Jake McGee, who led the team with a 41.8-percent strikeout rate and only walked three batters, is the best option from the left side.
Having pitched Tuesday and Wednesday, Jansen very likely wasn’t going to pitch in Game 3 on Thursday even had things gone well. So if they have a late lead and a chance to sweep the Padres, it will be interesting to see who gets the call.
“All of us need to continue to keep being better, and make pitches,” Roberts said, “and when your name is called be ready to get outs.”