HOUSTON -- In these waning days of a season that has been chockfull of negativity for the Los Angeles Dodgers, especially where their bullpen is concerned, a story has emerged that has not only injected a refreshing dose of positive but has also provided a promising glimpse of hope into the future of a relief corps that could be looking for a new closer by the time spring training rolls around.
By now, you probably have read about Kenley Jansen, who picked up his first major league win with a perfect eighth inning just before the Dodgers erupted for three runs in the ninth to claim a 6-3 victory over the Houston Astros before 39,237 on Saturday night at Minute Maid Park. You probably know all about how he used to be a catcher whose main job in the Dodgers' minor league system was to fill a roster spot, and how he finally agreed last summer to convert to pitching, and how upon doing so he instantly went from organizational afterthought to one of the Dodgers' top prospects.
But as the Dodgers begin now to look toward 2011 and beyond, it is time to put Jansen's compelling backstory aside and consider exactly where the strapping right-hander fits. And for a team that can't really rely on Jonathan Broxton, can't use Hong-Chih Kuo except on certain days and probably won't re-sign Octavio Dotel, where Jansen fits next season might just be at the back end of the bullpen.
It's a bold statement to make about a kid who won't even turn 23 until later this month and who has been in the big leagues for all of seven weeks. But Jansen has already made a lot of bold statements this season, not with his mouth but with his arm and his often-overpowering stuff. As he was setting down Michael Bourn, Jeff Keppinger and the dangerous Hunter Pence in order to reduce his ever-shrinking ERA to 0.96 after 18 appearances, this on an evening when he was pitching for the fourth time in six days on this trip, he showed yet again the composure, the confidence and even the cockiness required of a closer.
Perhaps even a great closer.
"I want to pitch like Mariano Rivera," Jansen said. "You always have to have goals in life. I reached my goal of being in the big leagues, and I have the goal of one day being a closer. Ever since I have been a pitcher, I have always had goals, and they told me what kind of pitcher they want me to be, a setup man and a future closer."
The fourth-place Dodgers (71-72), who remained 10 games behind the division-leading San Diego Padres in the National League West, have used Jansen in the closer's role only once, on July 25 against the New York Mets when he was about all they had available following a 13-inning game the night before. Jansen came in with a razor-thin, one-run lead and promptly blew through Carlos Beltran, Jason Bay and Ike Davis.
It was Jansen's second appearance in the major leagues.
"I think he can be (a closer)," said Dodgers manager Joe Torre, who was a first-hand witness to Rivera's rise to immortality. "We still have to sort of build his arm up to do that ... but I think it will be possible. He certainly has the build for it, and he seems to bounce back well."
One of the keys to the success of Jansen (1-0), who grew up in Curacao and speaks five languages, is how quickly he has picked up on the sometimes-complex concepts that go along with playing baseball at this level -- and how quickly he has been able to prevent any of those concepts from becoming more complex than they already are.
"When he first got here, we didn't want him to feel like he had to add to what he was already doing just because he was at this level," Dodgers pitching coach Rick Honeycutt said. "Our whole thought was just to smooth his legs out. We actually use Mariano's delivery at times as an example. Of course, these guys can obviously relate to him, and it's kind of a good cybervision thing to watch him and understand that you don't have to fire the ball to make it go where you want it to.
"Kenley is extremely intelligent, and he wants to learn. (Bullpen coach) Kenny (Howell) said this kid is like a sponge. He wants to soak up everything, which is obviously good, but we just don't want to make it too complicated. We might give him some small things to work on now, then start adding a few more things when he gets to Instructional League."
Oh, yeah, by the way, when the season is over, Jansen will head almost immediately to the Arizona Instructional League for some fine-tuning. Which means that by the time he reports to spring training, he should be even better than he is now.
And that should come in pretty handy for Jansen in what figures to be a crowded battle for a closer's job.
With the game tied 3-3, as it had been since the fifth inning, a host of complementary players played just enough small ball in the top of the ninth to give the Dodgers their second win in a row.
Trent Oeltjen, whose contract was purchased from Triple-A Albuquerque earlier this week, worked Astros reliever Brandon Lyon for a six-pitch walk. Reed Johnson, trying to lay down a sacrifice bunt, dropped one right up the first-base line, and the Astros' Brett Wallach decided to let it roll foul. But he didn't wait long enough, swiping the ball with his glove when it was still touching the chalk, and everybody was safe.
A.J. Ellis, also trying to sacrifice, then laid down a beautiful bunt halfway between the mound and the third-base line. Lyon (6-6) scrambled off the mound and appeared to have enough time to get Ellis at first, but threw the ball past Keppinger, who was covering. The ball went up the rightfield line, allowing Oeltjen and Johnson to score easily and Ellis to go all the way to third base.
James Loney, out of the starting lineup against a left-handed starter for the second game in a row, then delivered a pinch-hit double that a sliding Pence almost caught in right field, only to have it glance off his glove. Ellis trotted home with the final run.
Scene and Heard
Torre was ejected from the game by plate umpire Paul Emmel in the top of the first inning.
After third baseman Casey Blake took a 3-2 pitch and started up the first-base line, Emmel instead rang him up. An obviously angry Blake stopped and walked as slowly as he could back to the dugout, stopping at the railing to yell a few final words at Emmel. But after Blake disappeared down the steps, Emmel yanked off his mask and started shouting toward the Dodgers dugout and then quickly gave Torre the boot.
"I didn't curse," Torre said. "He said, `I have heard enough.' And I go, `Then get it right.' And he said, `I don't want to hear it anymore.' And I said, `Then get it right.' And he threw me out. It wasn't like the old army, where you could address those guys before they threw you out."
Torre then went to the plate to offer a few more choice words before turning the game over to hitting coach Don Mattingly and heading to the clubhouse.
"I still didn't curse," Torre said. "I was a little surprised Paul yanked his mask off. Normally, they just don't pay any attention to it. I was wrong, but I still shouldn't have gotten thrown out."
Dodgers center fielder Matt Kemp's rollercoaster season took another dip in the fourth inning when he suffered a mental lapse that might have cost the Dodgers -- and rookie spot starter John Ely -- a run.
With the Dodgers leading 3-0, Bourn, one of the fastest players in the game, led off with a drive toward that same cubby hole in left field where Jay Gibbons had made a possibly game-saving, leaping catch in the 10th inning on Friday night but where Gibbons had failed to make the catch on an almost identical ball hit by Bourn later in that same inning. This time, Gibbons again failed to rob Bourn, and Bourn again wound up with a triple, but only because Kemp froze for just a moment -- which is just a moment too long when Bourn is running.
Kemp hustled to back up the play and fielded the carom in deep left-center as Bourn round second. But Bourn suddenly slipped in the dirt and fell prone about a third of the way to third, by which time Kemp had the ball in hand and appeared to have an easy shot at Bourn.
But inexplicably, as if he didn't know whether to throw to second or third, Kemp stood and held the ball, cocked. Bourn got up and went to third, easily beating Kemp's eventual throw.
"I went to him afterward," Mattingly said. "As soon as I walked over, he said, `Just throw it, right?' I said, `Yeah.' I think he saw him going there and didn't know whether to go behind him or in front of him. It was just indecision, not realizing that you have to do something immediately because that guy is so fast."
The right play, Mattingly said, would have been for Kemp to throw to third, even if that gave Bourn time to scramble back to second. At any rate, Bourn came home on an infield single by Keppinger, a ball Bourn might have had to hold second on because it was hit to the right side. What followed from there were two infield grounders and a pop-up, so it isn't at all clear whether Bourn would have scored and whether Kemp's indecision cost the Dodgers a run.
Ely, making his first start since July 10 in what was supposed to be a one-time spot role, gave up three runs on six hits over six strong innings, striking out four while walking only one. Although he blew a three-run lead -- he gave up a solo homer to Wallace and a run-scoring groundout to Bourn in the fifth -- Ely pitched well enough to keep the Dodgers in the game and put them in position to pull it out in the ninth.
In the wake of news that Vicente Padilla, who was to have started on Sunday, is again sidelined with a bulging disc in his neck, Ely probably pitched well enough to start again the next time Padilla's spot in the rotation comes up on Saturday against the Colorado Rockies. Rookie Carlos Monasterios will start in place of Padilla on Sunday, but he has been much better out of the bullpen this season than as a starter.
Monasterios (3-5, 4.02) will be making his first start since Aug. 31, when he was pounded for five earned runs in two-plus innings of a lopsided loss to the Philadelphia Phillies. He has a 5.13 ERA as a starter compared to 2.32 as a reliever. He will be opposed by Astros right-hander Nelson Figueroa (5-2, 3.03), who is making his first start against the Dodgers in more than two years. Before that, he made two previous starts against them in 2001 and 2002, and he has a collective ERA of 6.60 in those three starts.
Tony Jackson covers the Dodgers for ESPNLosAngeles.com. Follow him on Twitter.