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  • An unlikely injury sidelined Dodgers closer Kenley Jansen, and now the defending NL champions can't find a way to close out games.
By Jon Tayler
August 14, 2018

For the Dodgers, their bullpen has spelled anything but relief in the second half. Reeling from the loss of All-Star closer Kenley Jansen to a heart problem over the weekend, Los Angeles has found itself unable to hold leads of any size. The latest catastrophe: four runs allowed in the ninth against the Giants on Monday night to blow a 2–1 advantage and a win for Clayton Kershaw. It’s the Dodgers’ fourth straight loss and fifth in their last six games, all of which can be pinned on a relief corps that’s low on bodies or ability.

The trouble started last Thursday, when Jansen—who has a 2.15 ERA and 61 strikeouts in 54 1/3 innings—was held out of the Dodgers’ win over Colorado due to what was initially termed an illness. The next morning, however, the team revealed that he was suffering from an irregular heartbeat and would miss the next four-to-six weeks; offseason surgery to correct the issue is likely.

The loss of Jansen would be bad enough, as he’s the rock of Los Angeles’ bullpen, but it comes at a time when that unit is woefully short on trustworthy arms. Joining the big closer are righties Josh Fields and Dan Hudson and lefty Tony Cingrani, all of whom logged significant innings before their injuries. That’s forced manager Dave Roberts to assemble outs with an unheralded and uneven crew, and the results are ugly.

Aug. 10: Holding a 4–3 lead against Colorado in the seventh, lefty Zac Rosscup—who was claimed off waivers from the Rockies in July and held a career 5.30 ERA coming into the season—gives up a two-run homer to fellow lefty Ryan McMahon (remember that name). Colorado wins, 5–4.

Aug. 11: Thanks to seven shutout innings from rookie Walker Buehler, the Dodgers carry a 2–0 lead into the ninth against the Rockies. Lefty Scott Alexander starts the inning and gets a strikeout before giving up a double. Wanting to play matchups, Roberts goes to righty J.T. Chargois, who hits Nolan Arenado with a pitch but gets Ian Desmond to ground into a force out. Needing just one more out, Chargois instead surrenders a walk-off–three-run homer to McMahon (remember him?) for a 3–2 Dodgers loss.

Aug. 12: Down 3–0 after six, Los Angeles rallies to tie it up in Colorado. For the ninth, Roberts gives the ball to righty Dylan Floro, who’s on his fourth team in three seasons. He goes single, strikeout, intentional walk (to lefty David Dahl), groundout, and another intentional walk (to—who else—McMahon) to load the bases. But Roberts’ strategy backfires, as Floro walks Chris Iannetta on five pitches for the walk-off walk and a 4–3 Dodgers loss.

Aug. 13: Kershaw surrenders one run in eight innings as the Dodgers manage a pair of runs off Madison Bumgarner to take a 2–1 lead into the ninth. Alexander, though, loads the bases with two outs on two singles and a hit by pitch, then gives up run-scoring singles to Nick Hundley and Gorkys Hernandez. Los Angeles loses, 5–2.

That sad litany doesn’t even include the game before Jansen went down, when Chargois gave up the go-ahead run in the eighth against the A’s. For the month of August, Dodgers relievers now have a 7.15 ERA in 34 innings, including 14 walks and six homers surrendered; the rotation has a 2.71 mark in the same span.

Those blunders have kept the Dodgers stuck in neutral in the NL West. Entering Tuesday, Los Angeles trails Arizona by a game and is tied with Colorado for second place; San Francisco lurks four games behind. Had the Dodgers closed out the three games they blew, they’d be two games clear of the Diamondbacks for first. Instead, despite the best run differential in the National League and some stellar starting pitching of late, Los Angeles can’t make up or create any distance.

Worse, with the trade deadline now passed, there’s not much the Dodgers can do in terms of adding reinforcements. (The one reliever they did land in July, righty John Axford, suffered a fractured fibula on Monday after taking a ball off the shin and will miss the next two-to-three weeks.) Things have gotten so dire that, on Sunday, Roberts announced that he was moving starters Kenta Maeda and Ross Stripling to the bullpen. Both have relief experience: Maeda threw 10 2/3 innings out of the ‘pen in last year’s postseason, allowing just one run and striking out 10; and Stripling had spent most of his major league career as a long reliever before joining the rotation in early May to replace an injured Kershaw. Both could be impact arms, though both were also excelling in the rotation. Stripling had a 2.68 ERA and 102 strikeouts in 90 2/3 innings as a starter this year, and Maeda had a 3.80 mark and 130 whiffs in 109 innings.

It’s an unfair demotion for both of them, particularly Maeda, whose contract is loaded with financial incentives connected to games started and innings pitched. It’s also an indictment of Los Angeles’ depth and planning. Injuries have taken their toll, but for whatever reason, the Dodgers’ front office made no real attempt either in the offseason or during the year to add help to a group that needed it.

Last year’s Dodgers were undone in part by the bullpen, which ran out of gas in the postseason. Roberts leaned heavily on Jansen, Maeda and setup man Brandon Morrow, while other options like Fields, Cingrani and Tony Watson proved less reliable, and the struggling Pedro Baez was left off the World Series roster entirely. Yet even with Morrow and Watson walking in the offseason and Maeda returning to the rotation, Los Angeles added just two notable arms to its collection: Alexander via trade, and failed Marlins starter Tom Koehler in free agency. The latter promptly suffered a season-ending shoulder injury in spring training.

Likewise, at the deadline, the Dodgers added only Axford—who had a 4.41 ERA in Toronto this year—despite a bevy of relievers changing teams. Instead, Los Angeles spent its prospect capital on Manny Machado and Brian Dozier. Those were both sensible additions, but a reliable setup option for Jansen, or at least some better depth, would’ve been welcome as well.

Instead, Los Angeles will have to push forward with its Not Ready For Prime Time Players. There are some bright spots. Rookie lefty Caleb Ferguson has been a find, with a 1.14 ERA and 28 strikeouts in 23 2/3 innings since joining the bullpen in late June. Chargois, a spring training waiver claim, has 36 strikeouts in 29 frames and has held righties to a .595 OPS against (though lefties demolish him). Former Met Erik Goeddel has whiffed 34 in 28 innings (albeit with 15 walks and four home runs allowed).

But it’s a tall task to ask castoffs, rookies and career middle relievers to secure big outs late in games amid a tough division race. From here until Jansen’s return, Roberts and Dodgers fans alike will likely be holding their breath through every relief appearance.

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