The Dodgers have done this song and dance before.
They’ll have a veteran closer who begins to struggle. They’ll stick with him, for better or worse, down the stretch of the regular season. Then, come the playoffs, they’ll pivot, turning to someone else for ninth-inning situations in the heart of October.
In the past, it has been Kenley Jansen.
This year, it seems increasingly likely they’ll do the same with Craig Kimbrel.
Acquired in a trade this spring to become Jansen’s successor at the back of the Dodgers bullpen, Kimbrel was supposed to give the team veteran experience and a future Hall of Fame pedigree in the ninth inning.
Instead, he has provided mostly heartburn and headaches.
He has converted only 20 of 24 saves — with all four blown saves coming in one-run opportunities.
His ERA is 4.57 and his WHIP 1.55 — far worse than anything Jansen ever posted, even when he was regularly booed during his worst couple of seasons with the team.
Most of all, Kimbrel’s struggles are giving an already shorthanded bullpen a major question to be addressed between now and the start of the playoffs.
On Wednesday afternoon, manager Dave Roberts continued to voice support for the right-hander, reiterating that for now, he remains the team’s closer.
But, Roberts was asked, if Kimbrel can’t be trusted with one-run leads in August, how can the team count on him in such situations come October?
“Well, we’re just fortunate October is not upon us right now,” Roberts said. “If we have a one-run lead tonight, he’s pitching. So that’s kind of where I’m at right now.”
In the Dodgers’ 2-1 win Wednesday night, the decision paid off.
After home runs from Austin Barnes and Max Muncy, as well as seven shutout innings from Tony Gonsolin, Kimbrel was able to seal a one-run lead in the ninth for the first time all season, stranding two two-out baserunners a night after faltering in a similar situation against the Brewers (62-54) in the team's extra-inning loss.
“That’s the beauty of being in the bullpen,” Kimbrel said. “You don’t have to sit on it for too long.”
Still, before the game, Roberts didn’t commit to the Dodgers (81-35) using the 34-year-old as their postseason closer.
“With his track record, he's earned the right to get a longer look, absolutely. I have no problem with that,” Roberts said. “But as we get into September, the best pitchers are gonna pitch. That's just the way it has to be. And I think that's the only right way you manage it.”
Roberts also acknowledged this season was starting to feel similar to the team’s past usage of Jansen — who was bypassed in some of the biggest moments of the team’s 2019 National League Division Series loss to the Washington Nationals and summoned for only three save situations during their run to the World Series in 2020.
“I think that’s fair,” Roberts said. “In the sense of, once you get to a certain point on the schedule, the best players should play. I’m a big believer in the players make the lineup, and the players determine who pitches. So that goes to performance.”
And what, exactly, does Kimbrel have to fix to salvage his season over the final couple of months?
“I think he's being too fine at times, and I think he has the ability to be more efficient,” Roberts said. “Sometimes, to be quite honest, I think he's chasing the strikeouts instead of chasing outs. … He's getting strike one, then he starts to be too fine. And then when the hitter gets back in the count, you can't be fine anymore. Now you're getting pitches that are spoiled. So we want outs. I don't care how they come.”
Roberts added it was too early to speculate about potential contingencies, if the team does ultimately go another direction in the closer role come the end of the season.
The list of candidates, however, is becoming clear.
The list of candidates, however, is becoming clear, from set-up man Evan Phillips to hard-throwing right-hander Brusdar Graterol (who could return from a shoulder injury as soon as this weekend) to still-rehabbing veteran Blake Treinen.
“I feel very good about us, the group of guys we have coming out of the ‘pen, and how we can match them up and prevent runs,” Roberts said. “I feel really good about that.”
Whatever direction the Dodgers go, though, the clock is ticking for them to decide.
In 2020, they still won a World Series without a traditional closer. But in 2019, the unrest at the back of the bullpen cost them mightily in a Game 5 NLDS loss to the Washington Nationals.
How 2022 will play out remains to be seen.
The only thing that’s certain: The Dodgers either need Kimbrel to make drastic improvements in a hurry, or start exploring other ways to close out games.
“For a lot of reasons, I got to start throwing the ball better, getting the ball over the plate and showing I can dominate,” Kimbrel said. “Not only for myself and feeling comfortable, but letting everybody else feel comfortable going into the playoffs. It’s definitely my goal for the rest of the year, get things right and get ready for the playoffs.”
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.