YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

Brian Wilson and Kenley Jansen provide Dodgers with a knockout punch

Although starting pitchers get more attention in the playoffs, recent champions have featured with a late-game duo of relievers who can deprive opponents of any hope after the seventh inning.

October 11, 2013|Bill Plaschke
  • Dodgers closer Kenley Jansen (74) is swarmed by relievers Brian Wilson (00) and J.P. Howell (56) after defeating the Atlanta Braves, 4-3, in Game 4 of the NL division series.
Dodgers closer Kenley Jansen (74) is swarmed by relievers Brian Wilson… (Stephen Dunn / Getty Images )

ST. LOUIS — One guy has the most famous beard in sports, the other guy is all scraggle and shadow.

One guy has so many colorful tattoos he pitches like a blurred painting, the other guy has never been inked.

One guy wears 00 because nobody else wanted it, the other guy wears 74 out of sentiment, because it is the street number of the home he bought for his family.

Only on these diverse Dodgers, it seems, could Brian Wilson and Kenley Jansen live in different worlds yet be part of the same punch. It's not a 1-2 punch, but an 8-9 punch, one strong enough to shorten a game and serve as a curfew.

The punch decree: If you don't beat the Dodgers in seven innings, your night is over.

In a playoff culture that assigns infinite value to a team's top two starting pitchers, Wilson and Jansen serve an equally important role as the Dodgers' last two pitchers — Wilson in the eighth inning, Jansen in the ninth inning, "I Love L.A." on deck.

For the last six weeks, the duo has been nearly as effective as Clayton Kershaw and Zack Greinke in intimidating opponents and shutting down scoreboards — only, their word is the final one.

"That's exactly how we want it to feel like," Wilson said. "We want it to feel like when we come in, the game is over."

You remember that slogan, right? "Game Over"? About 10 years ago, it belonged to Dodgers reliever Eric Gagne, whose steroid-fueled efforts set all sorts of save records. Everyone remembers Gagne, but what is sometimes forgotten is that he was consistently set up by the likes of Guillermo Mota, Darren Dreifort, Duaner Sanchez and Paul Quantrill in forming a blueprint for today's Dodgers bullpen.

"I remember the Dodgers in 2004. You get to the sixth inning, you felt like the game was over," said Dodgers Manager Don Mattingly. "To have two guys [like that] is great."

Wilson and Jansen are clearly those guys. Since Wilson made his Dodgers debut on Aug. 22, the two have combined to give up only three earned runs in 262/3 innings. That's a 1.01 earned-run average, with 34 strikeouts and 11 walks.

Since the playoffs began, they have worked their pugilism to near perfection, applying back-to-back jabs in two of the Dodgers' three victories while allowing zilch runs with 11 strikeouts and one walk.

Said Wilson, a 31-year-old from New Hampshire: "I'm having a great time."

Said Jansen, a 26-year-old from Curacao: "This isn't pressure, this is fun."

This is more than just great and fun. In recent baseball times, this is how champions do it.

The last three World Series winners have used the same two pitchers in the final two innings in 15 of their 33 playoff wins. The last two times the Dodgers were in the National League Championship Series, in 2008 and 2009, six of their eight losses to the Philadelphia Phillies featured the back-end Philly combination of Ryan Madson and Brad Lidge. Then there was the fabled New York Yankee dynasty of the late 1990s, which, during one stretch, featured the same 8-9 punch in 11 of 22 postseason victories. Everyone remembers Mariano Rivera, but his greatness was frequently set up by the often-forgotten Jeff Nelson.

"What we do together is a very overlooked part of the game," Wilson said. "It's not always about the last out. It's about the important outs after the seventh inning that are so hard to get."

Wilson is loud, Jansen is quiet. They don't hang out together and they rarely talk baseball. But they constantly eyeball each other, Jansen saying he gets inspiration from seeing Wilson take the mound, and Wilson saying he is inspired knowing Jansen is behind him.

Said Jansen: "You see him walk into a room and you think, 'Who is this guy?'… But to watch him pitch is amazing."

Said Wilson: "Each of us is in a different walk, but, man, he has talent."

There is one trait, other than both being right-handers, that they do share: a source of strength. For all their popularity, both men arrived here as outcasts.

Jansen is a failed catcher who has only been pitching since 2009 after being converted at Class-A Inland Empire by, among others, Dodgers instructor and former pitcher Charlie Hough. Jansen didn't become the full-time closer until the middle of this season.

"The way he pitches, when I heard he was once a catcher I couldn't believe it," Wilson said.

Wilson is a former San Francisco Giants World Series hero from 2010 who all but disappeared from baseball for 17 months while recovering from Tommy John surgery before suddenly reappearing here on July 30.

Ned Colletti, a former Giants executive, helped engineer Wilson's signing as a 24th-round pick out of Louisiana State in 2003. And so it was Colletti, now Dodgers general manager, whom Wilson trusted when he was looking for a team this summer after his rehabilitation was complete.

"There were only two people out there who truly knew what I was capable of doing, and that was me and Ned," Wilson said. "I thought, if he could see it again, I certainly could."

Los Angeles Times Articles