Follow Kenley Jansen, on his knees in the dirt and then backpedaling from the mound to the third-base line. Follow him, a man fighting for assurance in a game that won’t wait for him to be what he was. That can’t. And now he’s standing in the chaos that comes from good pitches, bad pitches, good and bad luck, broken bats and severed faith, on a team that for a few dreadful seconds Saturday night looked like it was trying to win three World Series instead of just one.
Follow Jansen, the generous soul whose arm isn’t what it was, coming to a stop square in the middle of it all, his head down, his arms slack, seemingly mourning the hit he’d allowed that would tie the score of this World Series Game 4, wholly unaware it was becoming the hit that would also untie the score of this World Series Game 4.
Follow Jansen, and for a moment, perhaps, you’d see a franchise with its hands upon its knees, weary beneath the weight of its recent past, wondering what more it could do.
When he awakened, Jansen was again helpless to stop it. He was too late. They all were. The Tampa Bay Rays were 20 feet from winning, then 10, then five, and Jansen was running stride for stride with the Los Angeles Dodgers’ latest postseason calamity. He could probably hear its footsteps. He could maybe hear its breath. He was too late.
Plenty had gone wrong in those few seconds. Plenty had gone right and wrong in the few hours leading to them. Where it had gotten the Dodgers was to a one-run lead with three outs to get, then to a one-run lead with one strike to get, that close to a three-games-to-one lead near the end of another season in which they might have believed a championship was inevitable. Maybe it still is, though they’d just given away three leads in the final four innings of a game that might otherwise have convinced the Rays of the existence of inevitabilities too.
Instead, Kenley Jansen could not hold the lead. He’d blow his fourth World Series save opportunity, a record. He would rail against soft hits. He also walked a batter, the one who carried the winning run. He certainly would be justified in pointing out that he didn’t give up all the leads, just the last one. He did not. He is not that sort of teammate, or man.
But Jansen, at 33 and as a closer for most of his adult life, surely knows how baseball goes, how October baseball goes. The game is to get the ball to the closer for three outs. The details from there are irrelevant, just, did you or didn’t you, just, cover every inch you can or stand dolefully 20 feet away, just, win or lose.
He did not mishandle the ball in center field. Chris Taylor did. He did not whiff the throw home. Catcher Will Smith did. He did not, however, back up home, he rather stood a long way from home, and when he looked up and saw what he’d missed, the rest was an 8-7 loss and a celebration on the field behind him. Probably it wouldn’t have mattered where he was standing, if he’d known Randy Arozarena was rolling on the ground behind him, and if he’d known third-base coach Rodney Linares was windmilling his arm behind Arozarena, begging him to go, then begging him to stand up, then to return to third base, then to score, then dancing with the rest of them.
In that moment, with a few more inches to contest, Jansen turned finally and seemed surprised to discover he was face-to-face with Arozarena, and still in the middle of the play that would decide a World Series game. Another one.
“I mean, you know, giving up two soft contacts,” he said of a broken-bat single by Kevin Kiermaier and a floating liner by Brett Phillips. “You can’t beat yourself up on that. I just totally broke Kiermaier’s bat and then on Phillips, another grenade single. You can’t beat yourself [up] there … It didn’t go our way today.”
Asked about his role after he’d let go of that last baseball, his 21st pitch, upon which he seemed unsure of where to go or disinterested, he said, “Yeah, I mean, you know I tried to see, you know, what could I do. I could’ve run a little bit more and then just see the play. But like I say, we came up short today, tomorrow’s another day and we’re going to come out there and give everything we’ve got and try to win ballgames.”
Asked for a little more clarity, he said, “It don’t matter. Tomorrow’s another day.”
When it was over and another cool, late October night had slipped from the hole in his pocket and fallen clear to the floor, manager Dave Roberts looked across the field as though he could see all of it and grasp none of it. There was a man sprawled and pounding on home plate, slapping it once, twice, six times. Another was in the outfield, gliding around with his arms extended, suddenly stalling, a seagull in a headwind. The baseball was, he wasn’t sure, somewhere over there — loose, free, unclaimed.
His Dodgers had come upon a gripping few seconds in World Series history and become vulnerable. Fragile. Patsies. His bullpen had come apart. Perhaps the Rays had taken it apart. His arms were draped over the dugout rail, his cap in his left hand. His eyes were narrow, searching for context, for an explanation.
“Unfortunately,” he said, “it was like that unperfect storm. Just unfortunate.”
He eventually walked away.
“We were one strike away and there was a flare there that, I thought, at least it’s a flare and [Austin] Meadows is coming up and I’m thinking through the 10th inning and it just kind of spun out right there,” Roberts said. “I wasn’t really prepared for a walk-off in that situation.”
They’ll play at least two more baseball games at the end of this October. They’ll almost certainly awaken Sunday morning and remind themselves that what happened Saturday night was not Game 7 of the 2017 World Series, was not Game 5 of the 2018 World Series, was not any of those final games of any of those postseason games of the past seven seasons. They’d put Clayton Kershaw on the mound Sunday night, and so start over from two-two in a series that has moved past anything the Dodgers might have expected when they left the last strike out there the night before.
“We knew it wasn’t going to be easy,” Justin Turner said late Saturday night. “We know how difficult it is.”
Of course they would know. And now that’s part of the game too.
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