LOS ANGELES -- Kenley Jansen is the Los Angeles Dodgers' closer, for now, for better or worse. For the most part, when he has been called upon to perform that role, it has been for the better; the young right-hander has come through on 10 of his 13 save opportunities so far. But part of the evolution of a closer, one of the most important lessons along the way, is learning to pitch just as well when the assignment is a little different.
For Jansen, for the second time in the past three games against the Los Angeles Angels, the assignment was a little different on Wednesday night, as he was asked to pitch the ninth inning of a tie game and to keep it there. On Monday, it took Jansen four batters to give it up, a game-winning single to Albert Pujols with two outs. This time, it took him one batter; Erick Aybar took him into the right-field pavilion for a leadoff blast that gave the Angels what seemed like their 998th victory in their past 1,000 games against the Dodgers.
In between, on Tuesday night, Jansen had come on to protect a three-run lead in the ninth and done it without breaking a sweat, retiring the Angels in order for his 10th save and an all-too-rare win by the Dodgers over the Angels. That was the regular assignment, the closer's assignment, the typical save situation.
It is fairly common for closers, especially younger ones or less experienced ones, to struggle when the landscape isn't exactly what it usually is. But it also is common for managers to ask their closers to do what Jansen was asked to do twice this week, because when you're playing at home and you're tied going into the ninth, there is absolutely no chance you're going to encounter a save situation on that night.
It may be an aspect of the role Jansen still has to grow into -- even if he is loath to admit that there is one iota of difference between the situations he faced on Monday and Wednesday and the one he faced on Tuesday.
"It's the same feeling," Jansen insisted. "I'm just trying to help the team win. I'm just trying to do my best. I don't think about anything else out there."
Dodgers manager Don Mattingly concurred.
"I don't think this was one of those [unusual situations]," he said. "This was a critical situation. I think this ... is basically a closer situation. You can't give up any runs there. If it's just a situation where he needs work and you're down three runs or up three runs, it might not be the same. But this was a high-intensity situation, where if you give up any runs, basically, you're not going to win very many games."
Sounds logical enough. But consider this: Baseball players are notorious creatures of habit, sometimes slaves to routine. The fact that Jansen faced a tie game twice in three days is extremely rare. Sometimes, the game's top closers might not face that situation more than three or four times in a season.
The glamor of closing is that you come in with a slim lead, your jog from the bullpen usually accompanied by some pounding rock song and a wild ovation from the fans, and then you mow down the other team in short order, punctuating a victory by pumping your fist or whatever shtick you have come up with for yourself while your catcher runs out to the mound to pat you on the back and tell you how great you are.
Come into a tie game, and there isn't any of that. There is no chance of ending it, either by blowing a 98 mph fastball by a flailing cleanup hitter or any other means. If you do your job, your reward is a seat in the dugout, where you can watch and hope for the chance to celebrate someone else's heroics in the bottom of the ninth.
So, no, it isn't the same. And the closer who can handle that occasional switcheroo, well, that can be every bit as valuable to a winning club as a long consecutive-saves streak.
In fairness, we should point out that Jansen's ERA this season is actually slightly lower (2.50) in nonsave situations than in the 13 games he has either saved or blown (2.70), but ERA is kind of a weird stat for relievers anyway because when you pitch only one inning at a time, the math tends to be skewed.
At any rate, looking only at the small sample size of this Angels series, Jansen was absolutely dominant when he was pitching for a save, not so much when he wasn't. And for a team that plays as many one-run games as the Dodgers do, you have to figure there will be a handful of games like this one as the season goes along.
"I can't worry about it," Jansen said. "Two times in a row, but I just have to go out there and be aggressive and keep pitching. You have to have a short memory in this game. I just have to keep attacking and doing my best out there."
And that means doing his best every time. Regardless of the circumstances.