His first blown save in four months may feel like a strange time to salute Kenley Jansen, but the All-Star closer's rare misstep highlights what he has meant to keeping the Red Sox afloat.
Pitching for the third straight day for the first time all season, Jansen clearly didn't have it Tuesday night in Tampa. Entrusted to protect a 6-5 lead in the 11th inning, he instead failed to retire a batter before Brandon Lowe launched a titanic game-winning homer down the right field line.
Jansen's first blown save since May 13 could not have come at a worse time, with the Red Sox on the verge of taking the first two against their southern tormentors and potentially pulling within four games of the final wild card spot.
But since realists recognize that the path to the playoffs pretty much washed out a month ago, now is a good time to salute what Jansen has meant to this season, rather than bemoan the illusion of contention he let slip away.
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Under Chaim Bloom, the Red Sox had hoped to hand closing responsibilities to All-Star right-hander Matt Barnes, but his ill-fated extension ended with a trade to the Marlins for the since-released Richard Bleier.
In between, they entrusted the ninth inning last year to anyone who answered their Craigslist ad. Nine pitchers recorded saves and two others blew them in a revolving door that tried Alex Cora's sanity. No Red Sox reliever saved more than eight games, leaving Cora mystified about who would record the final outs of any given game. Jeurys Familia, we hardly knew ya.
The Red Sox blew 29 saves last season en route to a last-place finish. Would a representative bullpen have given them the additional eight wins they needed to reach the playoffs? That's asking a lot, but they might've at least made it interesting.
It looked like they'd try to piece together the ninth once again this year until they made an aggressive pivot in free agency, losing Xander Bogaerts one minute to the Padres, and signing Jansen to a two-year, $32 million contract from the Braves the next.
It was by no means a guaranteed home run. Though Jansen led the National League in saves last year (41), he also turned 35 that September. Closing in on 800 career appearances and 400 saves, it was entirely possible he'd run out of gas, especially with rules changes forcing the league's slowest worker to pick up the pace.
Instead, he has been reliably lights out pretty much all year, turning the ninth inning into Cora's comfort zone. Not only has he saved 29 of 33 chances, but over 40 percent of his appearances have been perfect, and 10 of his saves have required no more than a dozen pitches. He has basically been the Terminator.
The hulking right-hander does it the old-fashioned way, too, lumbering in from the bullpen like Hall of Famer Lee Smith, and then firing his signature cutter like Mariano Rivera's understudy. When he's on, the cutter darts away from right-handers and his elevated 95 mph fastballs swallow them whole. Until Wednesday night, he had been remarkably on for nearly four months.
A year after recording the sixth-most blown saves in baseball, the Red Sox lead the league with only 13. Hopefully there's a lesson in there for a front office that likes to bargain hunt. While the 2021 team would not have reached the American League Championship Series without the contributions of scrap heap pickup Hansel Robles, it's also true that he soon reverted to pumpkin form before being released last July.
Ninth-inning certainty costs money, and the Red Sox spent it this year. They have been richly rewarded, which one lousy outing doesn't change.