The Dodgers' World Series hopes could hinge on sorting out ninth-inning pitching crisis

Mark Townsend
·Yahoo Sports Contributor
·6 mins read

It seems we've been asking this same question every October since 2013: Who or what can stop the Los Angeles Dodgers from winning a World Series?

Unfortunately for the Dodgers, the answer to that question has also proven to be repetitive. More often than not, it's the Dodgers themselves. Each successive season during this run, nearly a decade long now, has led L.A. to the same destination — disappointment. And there's one glaring reason that trend could continue in 2020.

We’ll phrase this new concern in the form of a different, more optimistic question: If the Dodgers do manage to win the 2020 World Series, who will manager Dave Roberts have called upon to get the final out?

It’s a question Roberts admittedly didn’t have an answer to before Los Angeles opened the National League Championship Series — its fifth in eight seasons — Monday night against the Atlanta Braves. And it’s a question that will only grow louder after veterans Blake Treinen and Jake McGee imploded in Game 1, allowing four ninth-inning runs on two home runs in a game Los Angeles lost 5-1.

Los Angeles Dodgers relief pitcher Kenley Jansen (74) walks up to the mound to work against the San Diego Padres in Game 1 of a baseball National League Division Series Wednesday, Oct. 7, 2020, in Arlington, Texas. (AP Photo/Tony Gutierrez)
Longtime Dodgers closer Kenley Jansen has struggled late in 2020 and appears to have lost the confidence of manager Dave Roberts. (AP Photo/Tony Gutierrez)

Kenley Jansen’s roller-coaster season

Jansen’s season got off to a rough start for non-baseball reasons. He was a late arrival to summer camp after testing positive for COVID-19. Upon his return, Jansen quickly got himself on track to start the regular season and looked sharp early, posting a 1.04 ERA over his first 17 innings. However, things took a turn during a Sept. 8 appearance against the Diamondbacks, and then really bottomed out Sept. 12 against the Astros, when he allowed five runs on six hits without recording an out.

From that outing on, Roberts scaled back Jansen’s workload. Jansen was only used once in a save situation — which he converted — over the final three weeks of the regular season. He was given another chance in the wild-card series, converting a Game 1 save against the Milwaukee Brewers. But the struggles reemerged in Game 2 of the NLDS, when he couldn’t close the door on San Diego.

Now Roberts, Jansen and Dodgers coaches are working hard to find a solution. Until that happens, it sounds like the Dodgers’ won’t have a locked in closer.

Dave Roberts won’t commit to Kenley Jansen’s role

Roberts knew the question was coming, because he’s heard it more than a few times already. But he didn’t have a firm answer when asked what Jansen’s role will be moving forward, or who might handle ninth-inning duties.

Roberts on Jansen’s struggles:

"No. Obviously this has been a popular question and I totally get it,” Roberts said Monday. “He is working incredibly hard. What happened in Game 2 happened, but we went back and watched it and the first 19 pitches were really good and really competitive and then he made some pitches there were mistakes and things that he would say weren't his best throws. But he’s working incredibly hard.

"There's some stuff in the delivery that I know Mark and Connor are kind of keying on. But to his credit, all he is saying right now is, 'I want to be a part of helping us win a championship.' It's a text message he's sending to other bullpen guys. From Doc and Mark and Danny's standpoint in-game, I think there are really good runs for different relievers and just how to deploy them and when. Obviously, it depends on how certain games play out, but I do expect him to be a big part in helping us winning championship."

And Roberts on the ninth inning:

"I think it's safe to say that each night, we're going to do everything we can to put ourselves in the best position to win a game."

ARLINGTON, TEXAS - OCTOBER 07: Joe Kelly #17 of the Los Angeles Dodgers celebrates with manager Dave Roberts after defeating the San Diego Padres 6-5 in Game Two of the National League Division Series at Globe Life Field on October 07, 2020 in Arlington, Texas. (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)
Dodgers manager turned to flame-throwing but inconsistent reliever Joe Kelly when Kenley Jansen struggled in the NLDS. (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)

If not Jansen, who is the Dodgers’ best ninth-inning option?

We can safely cross Treinen and McGee off the list for now. Despite posting a collective 117 saves before joining the Dodgers, they instilled no confidence in the manager Monday night, and in a postseason these things move quickly.

The larger question here is multi-faceted because it doesn’t just impact the ninth inning. Sure, the Dodgers have other veterans — like Joe Kelly and Pedro Baez — who could be used in the ninth inning, but they’ve been locked into middle relief and setup roles that would then have to be filled.

Under normal circumstances, a starter could be creatively used to help fill a bullpen role, but this isn’t a normal postseason. With no off days during a series, more starters are needed to actually start and/or cover middle innings for relievers that need a break. It’s basically the worst postseason possible to have your closer not operating at peak performance.

Here's who we would have considered before Game 1 and where they might stand now:

  • Blake Treinen: Pitched four scoreless innings in the postseason before Game 1. Those four innings will be long forgotten next time Dave Roberts needs a ninth-inning arm.

  • Joe Kelly: Recorded shaky save in NLDS Game 2. Posted a 1.80 ERA as L.A.'s setup man during the portions of the 2020 season when he wasn’t injured or suspended.

  • Pedro Báez: Picked up two saves in September during Jansen's "break." Is a postseason veteran with 24 appearances.

  • Brusdar Graterol: Developed as a starter but has transitioned well to the bullpen in MLB, firing 100 mph fastballs with ease. Might be the most intriguing option, but could be needed earlier in game due to his flexibility. In Game 1, he saved Walker Buehler by escaping a two-on, no-out jam in the sixth inning.

  • Dustin May: It's difficult to define his postseason role but he offers length. He entered for a late-inning role in Monday night’s Game 1. Should this series go six or seven games, he figures to continue contributing out of the bullpen at least part of the time.

Right now, it’s difficult to forecast what the Dodgers bullpen will look like over the next 16 days. But it feels like Kenley Jansen has to be the answer to all of the above questions, or the Dodgers could be destined to disappoint again.

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