Kenley Jansen makes pitch for Pedro Baez on Dodgers playoff roster
September 28, 2017 | Administrator
LOS ANGELES – For Dodgers closer Kenley Jansen, the tipping point came Sept. 19. Pedro Baez took the ball trying to protect a 2-1 lead in Philadelphia.
Baez began the seventh inning by throwing Phillies third baseman J.P. Crawford a fastball down the middle of the plate. Strike one. On 1-and-2, Crawford got another fastball down the middle, and belted it to the gap between right field and center field for a triple.
The next batter, Jorge Alfaro, saw six fastballs. The final pitch struck him on the right hand. With two outs, Baez walked Odubel Herrera on four pitches (all fastballs) to load the bases. That left him no margin for error with Rhys Hoskins, who broke a record earlier in the week by hitting 18 home runs in his first 34 major league games.
Hoskins saw 10 pitches, all fastballs. He hit a double to left field on the last pitch, clearing the bases. The Dodgers trailed 4-2, and Baez’s night was over.
Jansen could not believe what he’d just seen.
“It wasn’t the best game sequence,” he said. “You see the game plan that Petey had – what, 26 fastballs up in the zone, didn’t make an adjustment?”
Baez’s final count, for the record: 36 pitches, 34 fastballs, 22 strikes, and only one ball – a changeup – that missed below the knees.
“That’s when I feel like it was time for me to help him get out of it,” Jansen said.
Among Dodger fans, patience with Baez had already crossed the tipping point. On Sept. 8, Baez jogged in from the home bullpen in the sixth inning of a game against the Colorado Rockies. The Dodgers had lost eight consecutive games; Baez was the losing pitcher in two of them. Before he threw a single pitch – before he even reached the mound – Baez was booed resoundingly.
Dodgers manager Dave Roberts was incredulous.
“That’s something that really pissed me off,” he said.
Baez was bothered by the boos too, Jansen said, so the closer pulled him aside to talk.
“You’re going to pitch on the road the whole year,” he told Baez. “It’s not fair but sometimes fans don’t understand.”
Baez declined to comment for this story. Those who did pointed to a single source of Baez’s September spiral: a mechanical issue that began in the lower body and trickled up, affecting his release. As a result, Baez’s fastball was missing high almost every time.
Gradually, the physical problem became a mental one. No matter what Roberts said publicly in support of Baez, the results spoke louder. It’s hard for any pitcher to have confidence during a stretch of allowing 12 runs and recording only 13 outs. So it was for Baez after the Philadelphia game.
If this was merely a story about a struggling middle reliever it would end here. The final regular-season game is Sunday. Baez was a sure-fire bet to be on the Dodgers’ National League Division Series roster as recently as August, but now his chances look more like flickering embers.
The story does not end here, though.
Jansen did more than provide Baez with free advice. He stuck his neck out for the least popular player on the roster at his lowest moment – a deliberate, fully cognizant act of leadership. On the same day Roberts said he would begin informing players of his NLDS roster plans, Jansen openly lobbied for Baez to be included despite his recent performance.
“If we get Petey like who he used to be – he’s still the Petey who he is – if we can get him back to who he is, it’s going to be a plus point for us in the playoffs,” Jansen said Wednesday. “Because when Petey is on, it’s a lockdown mode with Petey at the end.”
If Jansen, Brandon Morrow, Josh Fields and Kenta Maeda are in, the Dodgers have their top four right-handed relief pitchers for the NLDS. Four left-handers – Tony Watson, Tony Cingrani, Luis Avilan, and either Alex Wood or Hyun-Jin Ryu – would bring the bullpen total to eight. In their four NLDS appearances over the past four seasons, the Dodgers never used more than eight relief pitchers.
Yet the question of how to construct the postseason pitching staff might not be closed. Right-handers Walker Buehler, Brandon McCarthy and Brock Stewart each have a case to be included. Ross Stripling has thrown more innings than any Dodgers reliever this season while striking out more than a batter an inning.
There is also a reason why Baez has appeared in every postseason since his 2014 debut. He has a 98-mph fastball along with a slider, a changeup and a sinker. He also has a 14.21 earned-run average since Aug. 31.
“To me, he’s gotten away from his strengths,” Dodgers bullpen coach Josh Bard said of Baez. “He was fighting a little bit of a delivery thing and it just kind of steamrolls, and you start being hard on yourself. There’s 85 different factors. It could be the end of the season, the playoff roster, arbitration – it could be all of those different things are real. For us to say that they aren’t is foolish. Knowing Petey for who he is, his motivations are genuine. They’re for the team, that’s for sure.”
As for the mechanics, Bard believes Baez is close to restored. He pointed to Baez’s two most recent outings – scoreless innings against the Giants and Padres – as evidence of a turnaround.
This week, Jansen has stood alongside pitching coach Rick Honeycutt to observe Baez’s bullpen work. He’s encouraged Baez to think less and get out of his own head, advice Jansen said he received from veterans Jamey Wright and J.P. Howell earlier in his career.
To a degree, Baez’s immediate future will also be a measure of Jansen’s influence. Roberts challenged his closer to take on a more active leadership role this season – the first since Jansen inked a five-year, $80 million contract over the winter. Already, the 29-year-old has been more vocal in group settings. This is the most powerful instance of Jansen taking an individual teammate under his wing.
Roberts said it helps that Jansen speaks Spanish (Baez, who is from the Dominican Republic, is not fluent in English), but his work ethic and track record might help more. Both men were signed as position players as amateurs, then converted to pitchers in the minor leagues. Jansen now has 229 saves in his career. The all-time saves leader, Mariano Rivera, had only 129 by his 30th birthday.
“Kenley’s more vocal than Mariano,” Roberts said. “Kenley’s more vocal than Trevor Hoffman (whose record Rivera broke). Those guys led differently. It helps when you have a distinguished, prominent role on the ballclub.”
It helps too that Jansen went through the same struggle with pitching mechanics earlier in his career. And that he and Baez get along.
“He keeps pushing himself to get better,” Jansen said. “That’s what I like about him.”