Kenley Jansen continues to grow
Young reliever, who could be a closer one day, takes another step in his development
DENVER -- Unwilling to sit back and watch yet another implosion by Jonathan Broxton, and with plenty of evidence right in front of him that such an implosion might be forthcoming, Los Angeles Dodgers manager Joe Torre handed the ball to rookie right-hander Kenley Jansen with one out and a precarious-looking, two-run lead in the bottom of the eighth inning Tuesday night.
The result was a wild ride but possibly a watershed moment in the budding career of Jansen, who recorded his first four-out save and preserved the Dodgers' 9-7 victory over the Colorado Rockies before 34,430 at Coors Field.
The loss mathematically eliminated the Rockies from the playoffs. Colorado has dropped eight of its past nine games, a stretch that began when the Rockies blew a five-run lead and lost to the Dodgers in 11 innings on Sept. 19 at Dodger Stadium.
The one thing Jansen hadn't really done since the Dodgers promoted him to the majors for the first time on July 23 was sweat, at least not in the figurative sense. His coolness, calmness and collectedness belied the fact he hadn't even started pitching professionally until a little more than a year ago, when he finally gave in to the endless suggestions by Dodgers minor league officials that he ditch the catching gear for good.
But as he came on to relieve Broxton with runners on first and second -- Melvin Mora and Todd Helton had just delivered back-to-back singles -- Jansen promptly missed the strike zone with his first seven pitches, catcher Rod Barajas coming out for a visit after the fifth one and pitching coach Rick Honeycutt doing the same after the sixth one.
"I just had to slow myself down," Jansen said. "I was kind of speeding it up, and that was why I threw seven balls [in a row]. When [Honeycutt] came out and talked to me, I finally got it a little bit."
Soon enough, anyway. Not before he walked Chris Iannetta to force in a run, cutting the Dodgers' lead to 8-7, but soon enough.
Jansen came back from there to strike out pinch hitter Ryan Spilborghs, and after Casey Blake's second home run of the game gave him some breathing room in the ninth, Jansen worked around a leadoff single by Dexter Fowler to get Chris Nelson and National League MVP candidate Carlos Gonzalez to pop up. He then struck out another marginal MVP candidate, Troy Tulowitzki, to end the game and record his third, and most difficult, save.
"Because he let the first guy get a hit, he got to go through their three and four hitters," Torre said. "Those are two pretty tough hitters. I thought that was good for him, even if it wasn't good for us. He did a [heck] of a job. I think it's important for him to experience stuff like that."
With Broxton still banished from the closer's role and Hong-Chih Kuo having been used the night before, Torre said before the game that Jansen would be his closer of the evening if he needed one. He wound up needing one earlier than he figured he would, but the fact Jansen proved he could come through not only in a tight situation but on an evening when he himself made things considerably worse before he made them any better was an experience that could only help a young pitcher who probably will be a full-time closer in the future.
The distant future, mind you.
"Next year, I don't think so," Torre said. "He certainly has a lot to learn, so it would be tough for him to take the ball and simply run with it. There is no substitute for experience, and he is going to keep getting that experience. I know from talking to [incoming manager Don Mattingly] that Donnie is pretty committed to Broxton [as next year's closer]."
On an evening when the Dodgers' bullpen as a whole continued to struggle, when Ronald Belisario (3-1) blew a lead and a victory for Hiroki Kuroda, Jansen's performance shaved his ERA to 0.72 and preserved the strangest of wins for Belisario, who gave up a two-run, game-tying homer to Fowler after the Dodgers had once led 6-2.
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Jansen also made sure the Dodgers' longshot dream of a .500 season -- keep aiming high, boys -- would live on for another day. The Dodgers, who are fourth in the National League West, are now 77-81 with four games to play, three of them at home against the last-place Arizona Diamondbacks. The third-place Rockies are now going nowhere, either, but they're at least going to finish with a winning record.
As for Jansen, well, he is going somewhere in this game. Someday, anyway.
"His poise has been outstanding," Honeycutt said. "This may have been the first time I saw him a little bit out of character, but this is a tough place to pitch, and it's not going to be smooth sailing every time out there for any pitcher. But his willingness to learn and his work ethic have been great. He continues to want to get better, and that is what you always see from the young guys who have gone on and really been successful. They always have that attitude of always wanting to get better."
As he met with reporters after the game, Jansen said one thing that left little doubt he is a future closer and probably a successful one -- and something underscored the glaring difference in the pitcher he is now and the one the struggling Broxton has become.
"My mindset is that I think I'm the best one out there," he said. "They aren't going to hit me. That is my attitude out there, to be aggressive and keep attacking the zone."
With the Rockies now officially eliminated from playoff contention, the Dodgers have scratched scheduled starter Clayton Kershaw from Thursday's series finale here and shut him down for the season at a point when he already has made a career-high 32 starts and pitched a career-high 204 1/3 innings. Immediately after the game, Torre and Honeycutt called Kershaw at the team hotel, where he was resting up for the afternoon start. He will be replaced by rookie right-hander Carlos Monasterios (3-5, 4.09), who could be making his final big league start for a while because the Rule 5 tag no longer will apply next season, meaning the Dodgers can send him to the minors. Right-hander Jhoulys Chacin (9-10, 3.26), the Rockies' best starter since the All-Star break, will pitch his team's final home game of the season.
Tony Jackson covers the Dodgers for ESPNLosAngeles.com. Follow him on Twitter.