LOS ANGELES – A while later, it may have been an hour, Kenley Jansen turned and he looked somehow younger. He was again — and maybe because it was the way he’d pulled back his hair, or the way his braces glistened from the camera lights, or how wide and soft his eyes appeared — the young man just new to this, the young man who’d only just stripped off his gear and left behind his life as an organizational catcher to become a grown man entrusted with wispy leads in the most fragile of circumstances. Just for a time. Just for long enough to mention for the first of many times that he was – is – indeed fallible.
He called it “human.”
“How ‘bout that?” he asked. “I’m not a machine.”
He did not seem disturbed. Not overly. But he did feel moved to repeat himself. That’s the life, after all, the one he chose – or, perhaps, technically, way back when, was chosen for him – when first he threw a zero-effort, zero-manipulation, pure cutter and then he convinced himself he was better than any man at any time, you pick the diamond, and then, well, sometimes a bat barrel gets in the way of a one-run lead in the ninth inning. That was the gig. Will be again tomorrow.
“Give credit to – what’s that guy’s name?” he said.
“Marwin Gonzalez,” he was told.
“Marvin,” he said, nodding his head.
The Los Angeles Dodgers had lost Game 2 of the World Series in about a dozen ways, many of them having to do with their previously impenetrable bullpen. They nearly won in a dozen ways, too, which is how some nearly 55,000 people spent 4 hours and 19 minutes on a swampy evening at Dodger Stadium, both thrilled and flummoxed, delighted and irritated, so much so that one of them clamored over the fence and had to be forcibly dragged from the Houston Astros’ bullpen. A man perhaps can stand only so much, so that only a headlock will do.
The Dodgers had bailed out after four one-run innings from their starter, a formula that had worked before but on Wednesday night at Dodger Stadium — an 11-inning, 7-6 whiplash of a game – there would be unintended consequences. They’d left a runner at third base with fewer than two out in the seventh inning, the opposing infielders playing in, a three-run lead beckoning. They’d required a pitcher who hadn’t thrown an in-game pitch in more than three weeks, and maybe that was why Brandon McCarthy allowed a single and a two-run home run in the 11th inning and maybe it wasn’t, but all that happened in McCarthy’s first eight pitches and then he was fine. They’d also hit four home runs. They’d reached the eighth inning ahead by two runs, that close to having beaten Dallas Keuchel and Justin Verlander in the first 27 hours of the World Series, and the ninth inning ahead by one run, which seemed like plenty, too.
The Dodgers’ – and manager Dave Roberts’ – usual game called. First this reliever, then that one, matching up and picking off outs like snipers, reaching finally Brandon Morrow and then Jansen, just that way for eight wins in nine postseason games. Conventional thinking had the Astros’ bullpen buckling first, and it did on Wednesday night, surrendering two home runs and three runs across 4 2/3 innings. That’ll beat you most nights in October. Yet, Roberts’ bullpen was forced into seven innings, and 105 pitches, and Morrow wobbled slightly, and Jansen, asked to get six outs for the first time this postseason and the first time since June 2, held neither a 3-1 lead in the eighth nor a 3-2 lead in the ninth.
Gonzalez, the leadoff hitter in the ninth inning, took one cutter, then fouled a cutter, the count 0-and-2, and assumed he’d probably get another.
“I wanted it to be up and in,” Jansen said. “It was flat, out over the middle. It was just one pitch and he got it.”
Gonzalez, a switch-hitter batting left, hit that cutter over the wall just to the left of dead center field. In the moment, Jansen turned, and center fielder Chris Taylor chased, and a crowd that has come to take Jansen’s ninth innings as automatic held its breath.
“I didn’t know,” Taylor said. “I was just running as far as I could to get to the wall. But I knew he got it pretty good.”
Afterward, there were stories everywhere. Jansen in the eighth and ninth. Josh Fields, acquired from the Astros just last summer, in the 10th. McCarthy in the 11th. There were home runs. There were bat flips. An umpire was struck in the left thigh by … a pickoff attempt. The Dodgers homered too, four times, and their only other hit – a Kike Hernandez single – tied the score with two out in the 10th inning. Charlie Culberson, who’d hit six home runs as a major leaguer, homered with two out in the 11th, bringing to the plate Yasiel Puig, who’d homered in the 10th, and only after the ninth pitch from Chris Devenski had Puig walked to the dugout, his right hand wrapped around the barrel of his bat, the whoops from the other dugout the only noise in a wrung-out stadium.
Jansen laced and tied his high-top sneakers, the blue ones. He drew his hair back with a band. He wore a shirt that said, demanded, “Rise Above.” The Dodgers bullpen had not allowed a run in its previous 28 innings, and it had been ravaged. Jansen, among the organization’s great success stories of this generation, had not allowed an earned run in the postseason since Game 3 of the 2016 Division Series. That was 14 appearances ago. That was 18 2/3 innings ago. He’d discovered himself in those eighth and ninth innings. He’d become strong and sure, added a reliable slider to that natural cutter, and when the Dodgers began mowing down the Arizona Diamondbacks and then the Chicago Cubs and then, for a game, the Houston Astros, Jansen had rumbled in from the bullpen eight times, faced 31 batters, handled nine innings, and allowed in them two singles and one walk. He had become a four-word game plan: “Get it to Kenley,” as it will remain, as this too will pass.
“I’m human,” he said again. “You can’t do nothing about it. Just get rest today, tonight. Look forward to tomorrow.”
He smiled, perhaps bemused. His eyes widened. His braces sparkled. In that moment, he could’ve been young Kenley again, the innocent who’d always said he wasn’t exactly sure how his signature pitch did what it did, now on this night not exactly sure why his signature pitch didn’t do what it was supposed to. It’s just the game, he said, and he’d honor that guy who hit the pitch that probably should have been hit, and also honor the next pitch, which will be better. That’s the one he’d think about.
“I mean,” he said, “I’m not going to beat myself to death.”
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