All Ball Sports: Kenley Jansen’s gone, Clippers’ Playoff P is back            

Dodger relief pitcher Kenley Jansen, with wife Gianni, demonstrates his signature cut fastball grip to Redondo Beach Mayor Steve Aspel, (left) and Councilwoman Martha Barbee in 2017, when he moved to Redondo Beach. Photo by Kevin Cody

by Paul Teetor

It’s Finally Time for Dodgers Baseball  

Who needs Kenley Jansen?

Not us.

That was the not-so-subliminal message the Dodgers sent Saturday when they traded with the Chicago White Sox for one of the top closers in the game, Craig Kimbrell, to replace the departed Jansen, the pride of Palos Verdes and formerly a Redondo resident.

Jansen, the all-time Dodgers leader in saves with 350 since he first appeared at Dodgers Stadium in 2010 after being converted from a catcher to a pitcher in the minor leagues, signed a one-year $17 million contract with Dodger archrival, the hated Atlanta Braves, last week. Although they didn’t say it, the Braves move appeared to be retaliation for the Dodgers signing of their star first baseman Freddie Freeman to a 6-year, $162 million contract a few days earlier.

Jansen’s sudden departure from LA – after both sides said they wanted him to return but were haggling over the contract numbers — left the Dodgers with a big hole in their pitching staff: no certified, hand-him-the-ball-every-time-we-have-a-lead-in-the-ninth-inning type of closer.

Oh sure, they still have Blake Treinen, but his history over the past few seasons shows he’s better as a set-up guy, the pitcher who takes the mound in the seventh or eighth inning, keeps the lead, and opens the door for Jansen – or someone like him – to come in, throw some serious heat, mix in some hellacious off-speed breaking balls, and get three quick outs and the W.

So after a week of media-fueled speculation about who would be promoted from middle-inning relief pitcher to designated closer, Dodgers General Manager Andrew Friedman went out and got Kimbrell. Like Jansen, he also has been in the majors since 2010, but he actually has slightly better statistics than Jansen: he has piled up 372 saves to go along with a 2.18 earned run average.

Naturally, the price was steep for such an accomplished closer: the Dodgers traded A.J. Pollock, who has been one of their best hitters the last two seasons – when he has been able to take the field.

The problem with Pollock was he was hurt so often that Manager Dave Roberts could never be sure of his availability. And every time he would start to get hot, to get in a real hitting groove, he would suffer some kind of bizarre injury that put him out for days, weeks or even months.

While the loss of the popular Pollock may come back to bite the Dodgers in October or November in a late-inning playoff situation where they absolutely have to have a hit and there’s no dangerous hitters left at the end of the bench, right now it seems like a reasonable price to pay for a quality closer as Kimbrell.

That’s the spin the Dodgers were pushing in the immediate aftermath of the trade. Because the trade not only filled the only glaring hole in their roster, it also re-balanced their relatively thin relief corps with a crowded group of good batters. 

“As much as the players, clubhouse guys, manager, staff and the front office loves AJ, we felt it was a way to balance up the roster and add to our pitching depth,” General Manager Brandon Gomes said right after the trade was announced. “We thought it was the right thing for the team in totality.”

Kimbrell was equally pleased with the trade, and not only because he only had to walk across the field at Camelback Ranch in Arizona where the White Sox and Dodgers were sharing spring training facilities.

“I mean, you come over to a team like this that already expects to win, and I’m being asked to come in and just do my job,” he said. “It feels really nice.”

Kimbrell, 34, has made the All-Star Team eight times out of his 12 seasons and is on track to be a Hall of Famer, as is Jansen, also 34. Kimbrell began his major league career with the Braves from 2010-2014. In 2015 he was traded to the San Diego Padres, then to the Boston Red Sox in 2016, where he had three great years. 

Over that span he recorded at least 30 saves in eight straight seasons and had an ERA above 3.0 only once. He had two mediocre seasons in Chicago before bouncing back last year.

The biggest advantage he gives the Dodgers: their middle-inning pitchers like Brusdar Graterol and Trienen, who were so important the past few postseasons, won’t have to be pushed into an uncomfortable role of closer by default or, even worse, closer by committee.

The biggest problem his trade creates: a hole in left field, where Pollock had been a big-time hitter when he could stay on the field. But even here there is an upside: Gavin Lux, the Dodgers best young prospect and a guy touted as possibly their next home-grown superstar, will get the first shot at starting in left field.

For the last couple of seasons Lux has been a player without a permanent position, shuttling between the infield and the outfield, filling in wherever the team needed him. But that kind of homelessness can stifle a player’s development, and the Dodgers are hoping that giving him stability in left field, and in the batting order will bring out the best in him.

If Lux can simply match Pollock’s production from last year – a .297 batting average with 21 homers and 69 runs batted in in 117 games – that will be good enough for this year, with the best still to come.

Kimbrell’s addition gives the Dodgers the deepest, most complete roster in the major leagues. They have four former MVP’s and two former Cy Young winners. With all that star power they should be able to win their ninth National League West Division title in the last 10 years, having lost it last year to the San Francisco Giants on the last day of the season.

They went on as a wild card team to beat the Giants in the League Division Series, but lost to the Braves in the League Championship Series. That made it eight out of nine years they made the playoffs but failed to win the World Series. And the one year they did win was 2020, the pandemic year when the season was cut down to 60 games and the entire postseason was played in a single ball park in Texas.

So even though the historical record will show that they won the 2020 World Series, the reality is that it was a vastly diminished victory that didn’t really register nationally amid the Covid-19 crisis. It didn’t even merit a DTLA parade for the winners. So frustration over the Dodgers inability to win the whole thing on a regular basis has been growing for a decade.

But Manager Dave Roberts, who signed a lucrative 3-year contract extension this week, says he is not worried about falling short again.

Indeed, Roberts went so far as to guarantee a World Series victory this year, something he has never done before.

“We will win the World Series this year…put it on the record. I’m putting it out there. I’m putting it in the universe,” he said on a popular podcast.

Asked if he was guaranteeing a World Series win this year, Roberts doubled down. “I am,” he said. “I’d be crazy not to. I believe in this organization. I believe we’re going to put ourselves in that position and we’ve got to finish it this year. Everyone in this organization better believe that.”

Spring is finally here and hope springs eternal in La La Land.

The Dodgers open their season Friday April 8 with a 3-game series at the Colorado Rockies. Then they travel to Minnesota for two games before hosting the Cincinnati Reds for a four-game series that starts Thursday night April 14 at Dodgers Stadium.

As a disgraced former president who shall go nameless in this space once tweeted: Be there, will be wild!

Playoff P to the Clippers Rescue

There’s been so much sturm and drung surrounding the dysfunctional Lakers this year that it was sometimes hard to remember that Los Angeles has two professional basketball teams competing in the NBA.

This week was a slap-in-the-head reminder that of the two, the Clippers are the only one that has played like a team proud of the name on the front of the jersey instead of the name on the back, the only one that has played like a team that knows it has a bright future even if it doesn’t have a bright past.

And – most shocking of all — the only one that is going to make the NBA playoffs.

Remember Paul George, the Clippers other superstar who has been out of action seemingly forever? Kawhi Leonard’s side-kick, his wingman?

Well, in case you’ve forgotten just how good George is, he came back Friday night after missing 43 games with a torn elbow ligament. He immediately reminded everyone that he is a true perennial All-Star, a guy who suddenly makes the Clippers a threat to do some serious postseason damage.

No one is saying the Clips are now a legit title contender. Not without team leader Kawhi, a genuine superstar who has missed the entire season with a knee injury. At this point, with only a week left in the regular season, there are no signs that Kawhi is about to duplicate George’s spectacular return. Or even that he is going to return at all before next season.

But for hard-core Clippers fans like Billy Crystal, Serena Williams and Floyd Mayweather who are starved for something to cheer about, PG’s return in a 121-115 win over the Jazz Wednesday night was heartening.

George – who gave himself the nickname Playoff P a few years ago and has been trying to live up to it ever since – scored 34 points and fueled a 25-point comeback to beat the Jazz.

Amazingly, it was the Clippers fourth comeback this season from being down 25 points or more. That’s more than the rest of the NBA combined. That stat alone says a lot about the team’s heart, its resilience and the reality that Clippers Head Coach Ty Lue is now one of the best coaches in the league.

But this one felt different from the other comebacks earlier this season. And that’s because those comebacks featured role players like Luke Kennard, Reggie Jackson and Amir Coffey leading the charge. There was no one else to show the way.

This time there was no doubt about who was in charge: the silky-smooth 6-foot-10 forward with shooting-guard skills, a point-guard handle — and a lock-down defender to boot.

This time there were reminders of all those images that became so familiar last spring when George led the Clippers to the Western Conference Finals after Kawhi was injured: Paul grabbing a rebound and going coast-to-coast to score at the rim with two guys trying to stop him; Paul backing down a defender until he spun and drilled a 10-foot turnaround jumper; Paul coming off a pick set by Ivica Zubac and drilling a 3-pointer; Paul drawing three defenders and finding Kennard for a wide-open 3-pointer.

And there was one particularly spectacular play that Clippers fans were still buzzing about the next day even as it made all the nightly highlight reels. It started when center Isaiah Hartenstein – a very pleasant surprise this season after the Clippers rescued him from the NBA scrap heap – threw George a lob pass that was way too high and a bit wide of the basket, so off-target that Paul had no chance of catching it and dunking it as he was supposed to do.

But he did have enough hops to leap in the air, cradle it with one hand, and notice that Hartenstein, having realized his mistake, was charging towards the basket for a possible rebound. George spun around in mid-air and hit Hartenstein on the dead run for a flying dunk that brought the crowd to its feet and brought the Clippers to within two points.

So a play that had started out as an alley-oop pass from Hartenstein to Paul ended up in mid-play as an alley-oop from Paul to Hartenstein. You aren’t going to see something special like that every night, even in the world’s greatest basketball league.

Of course it took Paul a few minutes to get going after such a long layoff, and that’s when the Clippers started to fall behind. He missed his first three shots, not surprising since he hadn’t played since December 22. His return seemed, at first, to unsettle the team.

“We got ourselves in a hole and it was just across the board: we didn’t shoot well, we didn’t defend well, we were late on 50-50 balls, and we weren’t getting our hands on loose balls,” he said after the game.

But everything changed after halftime. Suddenly it looked like the clock had been turned back 12 months, back to when PG was torturing the Mavericks and the Jazz in the first two rounds of the playoffs.

“We gave ourselves a chance, and we came out with a lot of energy,” he said. “I told the guys at halftime we had to bring more energy and more effort. And we did.”

Spoken like a true leader. 

Now if only Kawhi would come back the Clippers would be back in business in a western conference playoff format that is wide open. There’s only one dominant team – the Phoenix Suns – one up-and coming team in the Memphis Grizzlies, and beyond that a bunch of talented teams all with a chance to spring an upset and make some real noise.

Including, for the first time all season, the Clippers.     

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