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‘I get myself in trouble’ — Kenley Jansen adapts to his suddenly hittable cutter

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LOS ANGELES — It was the ninth inning, his Los Angeles Dodgers were leading by a run, and Kenley Jansen reared back and overmatched Randal Grichuk with three consecutive cutters on Wednesday night. The turn of events emboldened Jansen, instantly bringing him back to another time, when his cutter was virtually unhittable and secondary pitches were often unnecessary.

“F— it, it’s here,” Jansen thought. “Let’s go.”

Six of Jansen’s next eight pitches were, predictably, cutters. The last of those — traveling 93 mph, tailing middle-in — was sent well over the right-field fence for a game-tying home run by Toronto Blue Jays slugger Rowdy Tellez, handing Jansen another blown save in what has become another turbulent season.

Jansen was serenaded by boos as he retreated to the home dugout. Moments later, Dodgers manager Dave Roberts was pushing against the idea of a change at closer. The following afternoon, Jansen was lamenting his mindset. The right-hander knows the cutter is no longer untouchable, and he understands the need to incorporate his slider and fastball more frequently — and yet sometimes he just can’t help himself.

“Sometimes I get myself in trouble, because when I blow hitters out like that with a few pitches, it’s like, ‘Aw, s—, I got it today,'” Jansen said. “And it’s like, ‘Hey, use your mind.’ It gave me all the signs to change yesterday, and I didn’t do it. You know what? It’s OK. It’s a mistake, you learn from it, let’s go. No excuses, man. No excuses from me. And I’m not gonna lose confidence, at all, in myself.”

But the fan base might be starting to lose confidence, an apprehension rooted in part by the Dodgers’ relative inactivity before the July 31 trade deadline. The first-place Dodgers never acquired another dominant, late-inning reliever, placing increasingly more pressure on Jansen, who has at times wavered.

His ERA, despite a somewhat encouraging 21-pitch save in Saturday’s victory over the New York Yankees, stands at a career-high 3.62. His six blown saves this season are topped by just five other relievers, only one of whom is a current closer. From 2011 to 2017, opponents slugged .315 off Jansen’s cutter, a rate that fell 103 points below the major league average on all pitches. In 2018, it rose to .403. This year, it’s .465. The Dodgers want Jansen to incorporate other pitches and Jansen wants to comply, but the transition has proved difficult.

“I’ve never been great,” Roberts said, “so when you’re talking about somebody who has always been great, with one specific pitch, and when they know it’s coming and to still not hit it, and to have to go through that transition — it’s a transition. I think he’s understanding that you can be just as effective as you have been in the past, but sequencing is a part of that process.”

The Dodgers met with Jansen late into Wednesday night in part to emphasize that point. Jansen, 31, was apologetic for not straying from his cutter, an issue that has materialized in multiple ninth innings this season. The meeting took place, Jansen said, because he is “sick and tired of just being angry,” the result of experiencing failure and confronting transition for the first time in his 10-year career.

“You just have to clear your mind, love the game again,” Jansen said. “I have love for the game. Be happy. Be happy when you go out there. And perform. Once I do that, man, it’s gonna be fun again.”

Jansen threw his cutter between 84% and 93% of the time each season from 2010 to 2018. This year, its usage is down to 76%. Over the past two months, it’s down to 65%. The velocity on the pitch has dropped a couple of ticks, down to 92 mph. But its effectiveness lies in its late life, which has at times been compromised by inconsistencies in Jansen’s delivery. Over the past three years, the pitch value on Jansen’s cutter, according to Pitch Info Solutions research, has dropped from 20.8 to 9.4 to minus-0.2.

Pedro Baez, continually booed before reemerging as a valuable weapon last season, and Joe Kelly, who has recovered from a brutal start to the 2019 season, came to the forefront of Jansen’s mind last week.

“They went through the same thing that I went through,” Jansen said, “and look at them.”

So, too, did Clayton Kershaw, who has found a way to remain a legitimate Cy Young contender despite pitching with a fastball that he often struggles to dial up to 90 mph.

“It’s a game of adjustments,” Jansen said, “and I can still be so damn good if I make the adjustments. I just gotta be a little more smart.”

Jansen resides at the heart of the Dodgers’ chances of capturing their first World Series title since 1988. In retrospect, the 2017 World Series, when he failed to close out two games, might have marked the beginning of a subtle decline. In a macro sense, Jansen has not been the same since, though a hamstring injury late last spring and an irregular heartbeat late last summer have certainly contributed. Jansen was adamant in saying that his inner belief has not wavered. He vowed to remain upbeat, but also to learn from past failures.

“I trust all my pitches — use them,” Jansen said. “The game will tell you when you have to change — be aware of it.”

Roberts believed Jansen’s cutters were well executed Wednesday — even the one that resulted in a tied game — but also said he “went to the well too many times,” noting that Jansen should have incorporated sliders into the Tellez at-bat. Asked the following day if he believes Jansen can be dominant again if he sequences adequately, Roberts answered sternly.

“I have no doubt,” he said. “I have no doubt in my mind.”

Two days later, Roberts experienced temporary validation. The Yankees loaded the bases with one out in the ninth on three well-placed grounders, but Jansen recorded back-to-back strikeouts of Mike Tauchman and Gary Sanchez to preserve a 2-1 lead and capture his 27th save. Jansen threw 11 cutters in the inning, but also seven fastballs and three sliders. Roberts said “the sequencing was better.”

Max Muncy, standing almost directly behind Jansen while shifted up the middle as the second baseman, saw Jansen reach the mid-90s with his cutter on the final two pitches and found them to be “really, really sharp.”

“If we can find a way to get that going,” Muncy said, “we’re going to be in pretty good shape.”

Jansen is quick to acknowledge the advancements of his sport and why relying on only one pitch is becoming imprudent. He welcomed the recent boos from the home crowd, but he vowed to change the narrative.

“Give me the tough love,” he said. “I’ll make sure you love me again.”

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Playing for October, Cubs preach ‘next guy jumps in’ mantra with Rizzo, Baez out

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CHICAGO — As if the Chicago Cubs weren’t fighting an uphill battle already, the heart and soul of the team, first baseman Anthony Rizzo, is out indefinitely with an ankle sprain — and it couldn’t come at a worse time of the season. With the Cubs in a dogfight to make the playoffs for a fifth consecutive year, Rizzo’s presence will be missed in all facets of the team.

“It’s going to be tough to be without Anthony for a while here,” team president Theo Epstein said on Monday afternoon. “He’s so important to everything we do, on the field and off the field.”

Shortstop Javier Baez has been out with a thumb injury, but Rizzo might be the bigger loss. He’s integral to everything Cubs, from leading off, to two-strike hitting, to the bunt defense they incorporate — that’s where he got hurt — to simply being the face that meets the media before and after games. For comparison, Baez hasn’t even commented on his injury since being diagnosed with a hairline fracture, whereas Rizzo was at his locker to discuss the bad news on Monday.

“It’s throbbing but I keep my mind in better spirits and try to be in as good a mood as I can,” he said. “Every year isn’t going to be 2016. You have ups and downs. Everyone in this locker room is fully capable of carrying a heavy load at all times.”

As much as the team is hopeful for a quick recovery, the history of moderate ankle sprains doesn’t scream “a few days,” or even a couple of weeks.

“In the meantime you just have to plan that he’s not going to be there,” manager Joe Maddon said. “You have to get the guys ready and get them indoctrinated in these positions. I really believe our guys will rally around this moment. We have different options to play over there.”

It’s true. The team has better defensive options at first base than one might think, but Rizzo was the best leadoff hitter on the team this season. Chicago was terrible from that spot in the order — until he took over recently. So where do the Cubs turn, at first base and leadoff, to help keep their playoff streak alive?

Replacing Rizzo

A little-known, switch-hitting, backup catcher has emerged as the best candidate to replace Rizzo at first base, at least on the days he’s not behind the plate. Victor Caratini is actually beginning to make a name for himself, both as Yu Darvish‘s personal catcher and as a decent hitter. It’s not just his OPS+ of 113 that’s impressive, it’s actually his batting average. Sometimes, that statistic tells a story. Hitting .282 entering play on Monday, Caratini has become a more complete hitter. And don’t forget his two home runs that won a game off New York Mets ace Jacob deGrom last month. That was a defining moment for Caratini.

“He’s not chasing as much out of the zone,” Maddon said. “And he’s using left-center a lot more consistently. He’s not hitting that rollover ground ball, left-handed. He’s staying through the ball. Left-center has become his buddy. And the right side has gotten better.”

According to ESPN Stats & Information, 33 percent of Caratini’s balls in play have been to the opposite field; that’s up 10 points from a year ago.

“Caratini has showed time and again he’s good enough to be an everyday player,” outfielder Nicholas Castellanos said. “The fact that he’s getting an opportunity, I’m happy for him.”

Ben Zobrist added: “You don’t make that up with one player. You have to make it up with a couple players. That’s how you try to fill that hole.”

On Tuesday night, in the second game of their series against the Cincinnati Reds, Caratini will be behind the plate for Darvish; the hurler has a 3.17 ERA this season with Caratini catching. It means Maddon will need another first baseman and Ian Happ is his best bet. Like Caratini, he has flashed some decent leather filling in for Rizzo at times, but his offensive game isn’t quite like that of the Cubs’ regular first baseman.

Rizzo has a strikeout rate of 13.9, while Happ is at 25.6 percent after spending four months in the minor leagues. And that percentage is actually down from last year. Meanwhile, Rizzo plays against all types of pitchers, while Happ’s starts are limited to the good matchups. The drop-off is considerable.

“Next man up,” Zobrist said. “Rizz and Javy are a big part of this but no one is bigger than the team.”

It’s the same attitude the Milwaukee Brewers must be embracing as they continue to play good baseball even after losing MVP Christian Yelich to a knee injury. The loss of stars can be overcome for a period of time in baseball. When a very productive player is out several months, that’s when it usually catches up to a team. That’s not the time frame the Cubs are looking at. They can survive — for a bit.

“That’s our expectation,” Maddon said. “Of course it is … It is the next man up kind of a theory. And I do believe there are galvanizing moments when you do lose key people in key situations. I do expect a good result.”

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Reds vs. Cubs – Game Recap – September 16, 2019

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CHICAGO — Kyle Schwarber hit a three-run homer and made a diving catch in left field, helping the Chicago Cubs beat the Cincinnati Reds 8-2 on Monday night for their fifth straight victory.

Nicholas Castellanos added a two-run double in the eighth inning as Chicago moved a season-high 14 games above .500. Castellanos is the third right-handed hitter in MLB history to record at least 55 doubles and 25 homers in a season, joining Hall of Famers Hank Greenberg (1934) and Joe Medwick (1937).

Chicago has outscored its opponents 59-18 during its win streak.

The Cubs (82-68) pulled within a half-game of Washington for the top spot in the wild-card standings and stayed two games back of NL Central-leading St. Louis, which held off the Nationals for a 4-2 win.

Steve Cishek, Alec Mills (1-0), Rowan Wick, Kyle Ryan and David Phelps combined for 5 2/3 scoreless innings in relief of an ineffective Cole Hamels. It was Mills’ first major league win in his 17th big league appearance.

It was Chicago’s first game since Anthony Rizzo had an MRI that showed the big first baseman had a moderate lateral right ankle sprain sustained during Sunday’s 16-6 victory over Pittsburgh.

Rizzo will wear a walking boot for five to seven days, casting doubt on his availability for the rest of the season.

“We’re not shutting any doors, but we’re realistic that this is a legitimate injury that under ideal circumstances would take some time to heal,” president of baseball operations Theo Epstein said.

Cincinnati (70-81) had won three of four, but it went 1 for 9 with runners in scoring position and left 11 runners on base.

Kevin Gausman (3-9) pitched two innings for the Reds in his first start since he was claimed off waivers from the Braves last month. The right-hander has been a starter for most of his career, and manager David Bell wanted to give him another look in that spot while giving the rest of his rotation an extra day of rest.

Gausman got into trouble in the first when Chicago put runners on first and second with one out. Schwarber then connected for the second straight day, driving a 2-2 pitch deep to center.

It was No. 37 for Schwarber, the highest total for a lefty batter for the Cubs since Hall of Famer Billy Williams hit 37 in 1972.

Schwarber also robbed pinch hitter Derek Dietrich with a stellar grab on his liner to left in the fourth. Phillip Ervin‘s sacrifice fly cut Chicago’s lead to 3-2, but Cishek struck out Eugenio Suarez looking to end the inning.

IN-GAME CHANGE

Reds infielder Josh VanMeter left in the fourth inning because of a family medical issue. He started at first base after Joey Votto was scratched with an illness.

HE’S HERE

The Reds promoted infielder Christian Colon from Triple-A Louisville. Colon was hit by a pitch while batting for Gausman in the third and scored on Curt Casali‘s bases-loaded walk. It was Colon’s first major league appearance since June 20, 2017, for Miami against Washington.

TRAINER’S ROOM

Reds: SS Jose Iglesias (sore back) was out of the starting lineup. Bell said Iglesias likely will start Tuesday. … SS Freddy Galvis missed his second straight game with left knee soreness. Bell said Galvis doesn’t have meniscus or ligament damage and won’t be out long-term.

Cubs: Closer Craig Kimbrel (right elbow inflammation) is scheduled to throw a simulated game Tuesday and could return this weekend. … SS Addison Russell (concussion protocol) hit off a tee before the game.

UP NEXT

RHP Sonny Gray (10-7, 2.80 ERA) faces RHP Yu Darvish (6-6, 3.97 ERA) on Tuesday night in a matchup of two of baseball’s best pitchers since the All-Star break. Gray is 4-1 with a 1.29 ERA in his last eight starts for Cincinnati. Darvish struck out 14 while pitching six scoreless innings in Chicago’s 4-1 victory at San Diego on Thursday.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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White Sox shut down RHP Giolito with lat strain

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The Chicago White Sox are shutting down right-hander Lucas Giolito for the rest of the season with a mild lat strain.

The team said there are no long-term concerns.

“For me, it just sucks because I wanted to finish what I started. But at the same time, it is what it is,” Giolito told reporters. “It just was kind of a random thing that happened. That’s it.”

Giolito, who was slated to pitch against the Twins on Tuesday, ends his bounce-back 2019 season with 14 wins, 228 strikeouts, two shutouts and a 3.41 ERA.

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