The Dodgers will go as far as Kenley Jansen takes them

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LOS ANGELES -- Whether he picked it out intentionally or arbitrarily is unknown, but Kenley Jansen donned a compelling T-shirt in the moments before Wednesday's pre-postseason workout at Dodger Stadium. It read "I'm Back," with Michael Jordan and his unmistakable No. 45 jersey emblazoned on the front. Jansen has worn it before, but this time -- in the buildup to the National League Division Series, and in the aftermath of an especially trying regular season -- it reaffirmed something he had to say.

"I feel like the season just started," Jansen said, a big smile running across his face. "I can't wait for tomorrow."

Some of his Los Angeles Dodgers teammates tried their very best to forget about the World Series letdown from last fall, but Jansen embraced the thought, a persistent reminder that left him longing for the playoffs even when work remained to get there. It made the regular season seem tedious, but it also maximized his joy for this moment.

"I've been waiting for this," Jansen said. "I just wanted to get to October."

The question now is whether the Dodgers will get the Jansen they need, the Jansen who was one of the most dominant closers in baseball history over the previous three years.

Jansen's 3.01 ERA, 0.99 WHIP and 4.82 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 2018 was certainly respectable, but those numbers don't approach the 1.81 ERA, 0.73 WHIP and 11.27 strikeout-to-walk ratio he posted from 2015 to '17.

The concern stemmed mostly from the volatility.

Jansen allowed nine runs (seven earned) on 13 hits and six walks in the 11⅔ innings that encompassed his first 12 appearances of this season. He pinned the slow start on his attempt at rounding into form after a lackadaisical spring training, then brushed aside any concern while posting a 1.27 ERA and allowing an opponents' slugging percentage of only .240 over his next 39 games.

Then Jansen left the team after a recurrence of atrial fibrillation and struggled once more, giving up 10 hits -- four of them home runs -- in a four-inning stretch from Aug. 20 to 28. He finished with a 2.70 ERA in his final 14 appearances, allowing runs only in the three instances that were non-save opportunities.

Jansen has admittedly struggled to summon the adrenaline required to pitch effectively in situations when games aren't tight.

"You try to trick yourself," Jansen said. "But it's not the same, until you get in trouble -- and that's when you get locked in. It's like you're kind of immune to it already, for so long, that you get in tight situations, and then when you come in situations that are meaningless, it's, you know, a little hard."

The fact that he won't have to simulate the magnitude of the ensuing games makes Jansen believe he can tap back into the dominance he used to display so consistently.

His teammates believe the same.

"Kenley will be fine," Dodgers third baseman Justin Turner proclaimed. "He's a pro, he knows what he's doing, he's got experience. He's the guy we want to finish games for us."

"Kenley's good; there's nothing wrong with him," outfielder and good friend Matt Kemp said. "I don't know what people are saying, but Kenley will be ready when it's time to pitch."

Jansen allowed 13 home runs this season, tops among NL relievers and four more than his previous two seasons combined. He went from zero losses, one blown save and an 18.2 swinging-strike percentage in 2017 to five losses, four blown saves and a 13.5 swinging-strike percentage in 2018.

He battled issues with his delivery, which occasionally had him swaying toward the first-base side rather than driving toward home plate. And at times, scouts said, he also lacked the usual life and bite on his eminent cutter, which frequently dipped to the low 90s.

"He has to be right with his location now," an NL scout said. "And he hasn't been right lately."

The Dodgers spent the entire year searching for the right mix of relievers to effectively hand the ball to Jansen in the ninth inning, finally narrowing it down to a combination that seemingly includes Kenta Maeda, Scott Alexander and Pedro Baez. Their offense is prodigious, their starting rotation is deep, the back end of their bullpen has settled and basically their entire roster is now healthy -- but none of that will matter if Jansen is not right.

"We're not going to win the World Series without him," Dodgers starter-turned-reliever Alex Wood said. "He's going to rise to the occasion, like he always does. Everybody in here believes in him."

Dodgers manager Dave Roberts planned to speak with Jansen before the start of the postseason, just to make sure his head was in the right place. Roberts doesn't plan to use Jansen as often as he deployed him last fall, when the closer racked up 16⅔ innings over a stretch of 15 games. But that, Roberts said, is a function of an unsustainable workload, not a wavering confidence.

"My confidence level is high, and my expectation for him to pitch well in this big series is the same, as it has been the last three years," Roberts said. "He's shown to perform on this stage, in this environment. And that's what I'm going to pull from, his teammates are going to pull from and I'm going to encourage him to pull from."

Jansen, 31, faces the possibility of another heart surgery in the offseason, a reality that can consume him if he lets it.

Coming to work makes it easier.

"So much easier," Jansen said. "At home, a lot of things are spinning, and you think about this, and you feel your heart ticking every day."

For that reason -- and several others -- Jansen wants to play as long as possible. He wants to keep showing up to the ballpark, he wants to keep pitching the ninth inning, and he wants to keep advancing, all the way to the World Series, this time with a trophy in hand.

"I think a lot about how we fell short, how we felt at the end last year," Jansen said. "And I let that motivate me -- that we have another chance to go at it, to try to win a championship. And here we are. We can't take this stage for granted. We have to focus and give everything we've got. So by the time I'm done, I should be exhausted."