Kenley Jansen helped save the Red Sox’s season with a late-game clincher

If you’re wondering what’s changed with the Red Sox in the last year, score one for the dinosaurs.

When it comes to building new-age rosters, everyone needs a closer, but the smartest front offices like to pluck them out of the blue before moving on to the next guy. The Rays have mastered the art of messing up, but they’re hardly alone; the same pitcher did not lead the Braves in saves since Jim Johnson in 2016-17.

The Red Sox have tried to survive without a seasoned fireman nailing down the ninth since Craig Kimbrel left in 2018. They got a great season from Brandon Workman in 2019 and half of one from Matt Barnes two years later, but last outs are often is proving dangerous for manager Alex Cora.

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No longer. In Kenley Jansen, the Red Sox took the direct approach, paying big money (two years, $32 million) for a 35-year-old entering his 14th season. An analytically minded front office might label the decision as lazy, as it’s always possible to find someone who throws 98 mph and just needs to change the shape of his blah blah blah to get the job done for a bit.

But on the same day they lost shortstop Xander Bogaerts to the Padres in free agency, the Red Sox reached out to Jansen, and it’s safe to say they have no regrets.

Six weeks into his Red Sox career, Jansen is dynamite. He is 1-0 with a 0.84 ERA and eight saves in nine chances. His 36.4 percent slugging percentage dates back to his prime with the Dodgers, when he made three straight All-Star teams from 2016-18.

As we look for reasons to explain why the Red Sox are 21-15 on this date instead of 10-19 a year ago, the most obvious place to start is at the end.

With all due respect to relentless offense and the emergence of youngsters like Jaron Duran and Connor Wong, the Red Sox raced to the sixth-best record in baseball because they didn’t turn wins into heartbreaking losses.

They made two saves, but then went on to win both games. At this point last year, they had already made eight saves and been sacked four times. Consider some of the low points of 2022:

  • On Opening Day at Yankee Stadium, the Red Sox took a 5-4 lead into the 10th, but Jake Diekman and Ryan Brazier blew it before Cutter Crawford was ejected in just his second major league appearance.
  • On April 23 in Tampa, the Red Sox broke a scoreless tie with two runs in the 10th, only to latch on to Hansel Robles. With two outs and just the ghost runner on, Trevor Storey hit what should have been the game-ending groundout. Two batters later, Kevin Kiermaier sent everyone home with a double to right.
  • Or how about April 26th in Toronto? The Blue Jays reached their final hit of a 5-3 game before George Springer took Diekman deep for the game-tying homer. Then the Mats (Barnes and Strahm) combined to lose him in the 10th.

These were just devastating, gut-wrenching losses, and they seemed to come at least once a week. The Red Sox are undefeated against either of them this year. The closest thing would probably be a 1-0 loss to the Rays as part of a four-game stretch when Chris Martin surrendered a solo homer in the eighth.

But that’s pretty much it, and it starts with Jansen. Imagine this season without him. Instead of Jon Schreiber and Josh Winkowski settling into their roles as people who know they have to be ready between the sixth and eighth, Cora will be forced to rely on one or both of them in the ninth. Maybe he’d try to shoehorn Martin in there, a la Diekmann last year.

Instead, Jansen has provided order, as well as the peace of mind that comes with having a true last line of defense.

This is the way teams were built before front offices started trying to outsmart each other. Sometimes the easiest solution is the best solution, and dinosaurs have their day.

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