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Dodgers keep the door open on closers

Javy Guerra and Kenley Jansen could earn the role after their efforts last season. It's a friendly competition.

February 24, 2012|By Dylan Hernandez
  • Pitchers Javy Guerra, left, and Kenley Jansen enter spring training competing for the Dodgers' closer spot.
Pitchers Javy Guerra, left, and Kenley Jansen enter spring training competing… (Mark Boster / Los Angeles…)

Reporting from Phoenix — Javy Guerra was seated a couple of locker stalls away when Kenley Jansen was asked whether he wanted Guerra's job.

Guerra laughed. Jansen smiled uncomfortably and shook his head.

"I don't know, man," Jansen said. "I don't know what's going on. It's crazy to hear who should close."

Smiling, Guerra stood up and headed toward the clubhouse bathroom.

"I'm out of here," Guerra said. "Say what you want."

Jansen laughed.

Manager Don Mattingly has so far avoided a closer controversy by saying he is starting camp with Guerra as his closer. But he also hinted the assignment might not be permanent.

"He's not Mariano [Rivera] or somebody that says, 'Hey, that's mine,' and you don't even think about anyone else," Mattingly said. "It's competition."

Guerra was the Dodgers' full-time closer for the final three months of last season in the absence of the since-departed Jonathan Broxton. He finished his rookie season with 21 saves and a 2.31 earned-run average. He blew only two saves.

Jansen was arguably even more dominant in what was also his rookie season, setting an all-time major league record by striking out an average of 16.1 batters per nine innings (96 strikeouts in 53 2/3 innings).

"Javy, to me, didn't do anything last year to say he shouldn't be that guy," Mattingly said. "More than anything, Kenley was saying, 'Hey, I can do that too.'"

Guerra, a bilingual 26-year-old Mexican-American who grew up in northern Texas, said he takes pride in being the Dodgers' closer.

Jansen, a 24-year-old from the Caribbean island of Curacao who speaks five languages, acknowledged it's a role he would like.

"Yeah, definitely," Jansen said.

But there are no signs of tension between them.

"Me and Javy, we're cool," Jansen said. "We grew up in the minor leagues together."

They first met in 2005. That was a lifetime ago. Guerra was sent to the Dodgers' previous spring training complex in Vero Beach, Fla., to rehabilitate his surgically repaired elbow. Jansen was a light-hitting but strong-armed catcher for the rookie-level Gulf Coast Dodgers, who called the facility their home. (Jansen hit like a pitcher, so in the middle of the 2009 season, the Dodgers moved him to the mound.)

Only a short winter removed from their rookie seasons, Guerra and Jansen still wear the smiles they wore when they were first called up to the major leagues. They speak the way players their age usually speak, visibly excited but noticeably cautious, telling visitors to their lockers that they are fine with whatever role assigned to them so long as they win.

"It's important to understand that at the end of the day, you have to win the ballgame," Guerra said.

Because of the overwhelming nature of Jansen's performance last season — he had a 1.34 ERA over his last 40 appearances — that could be him in the setup role.

"He's a guy you felt could finish innings and get four outs at times," Mattingly said. "With Kenley, you can kind of do anything."

Such as sending him into a game in the seventh inning with two out and men in scoring position.

Of the 21 runners Jansen inherited last season, only one scored. With two out and runners in scoring position, opponents batted .115 against him.

At the same time, Jansen's 2011 season is a reminder to Mattingly that there is no guarantee Guerra will duplicate his performance.

"There have been guys that went the first year and been really good and struggled the next year," Mattingly said. "Kenley was the perfect example."

Jansen made 25 major league appearances in 2010 and posted an 0.67 ERA, which led to his immediately being labeled the team's future closer.

Jansen's memorable season last year started disastrously. He had a 7.34 ERA through his first 11 appearances, resulting in a demotion to double-A Chattanooga. He was recalled to the major leagues six days later, but only because Broxton was hurt.

"It took him a half season to get through problems," Mattingly said.

And even when he regained his form, he was sidelined from July 29 to Aug. 26 with an irregular heartbeat.

Guerra's major league resume is admittedly short, limited to the 47 games he pitched last season. But in that brief time, he encountered many different scenarios.

He pitched clean innings. He pitched his way into trouble and out of it. He recovered from a blown save.

And Guerra's life-changing season ended with a bitter lesson. In his final appearance, Guerra entered the game with a 6-3 lead in the 10th inning against the Arizona Diamondbacks. He served up a walk-off grand slam to Ryan Roberts.

"I really learned the most in the last game when I gave up the granny against the Diamondbacks," Guerra said. "Mentally, you have to stay focused. The game's never over. Mentally, never lose that edge."

dylan.hernandez@latimes.com

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