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Friday, May 17, 2013
Let's hope Don Mattingly sticks to his bullpen plan

By Mark Saxon

In 1969, the save became an official MLB statistic and managers have pretty much been in its power ever since.

Media and fans started rewarding saves with awards and attention, guys who piled up a lot them became famous. Famous people in baseball make more money than obscure people. Jonathan Papelbon, who has pitched 16 2/3 innings, or 4 percent, of the Philadelphia Phillies’ innings this season is earning $13 million.

In a refreshing, maybe crucial, twist, Dodgers manager Don Mattingly has tried something new and he sounds like he's sticking with it.

Instead of using his best reliever for save situations -- which can be as low-leverage as a three-run lead and the worst three hitters in a lineup coming to the plate -- he has forced Kenley Jansen into jams, whatever time of game, confident the big right-hander can pitch his team out of it.

Tuesday, when Clayton Kershaw started getting tired and allowed a couple of deep flies and a single, Jansen came in to get the final out (and a save in a 2-0 game). The next night, with the tying run at the plate in the seventh inning, Mattingly summoned Jansen. Why? Because the Nationals’ best healthy hitters, Ryan Zimmerman and Adam LaRoche, were about to come up.

Jansen allowed consecutive hits to open the eighth, but muscled his way out of the jam.

In a way, Jansen has the worst of both worlds. He has to do the heaviest lifting and he gets only a sliver of the rewards. Relievers tend to get paid according to their save numbers and Jansen is arbitration eligible for the first time next season.

Jansen said he’s not concerned about when he pitches, saying he stays ready for “whenever the phone rings.” Mattingly joked that he is just trying to toughen up his laidback reliever, who is from the Caribbean island of Curacao.

“It’s what we’ve talked about before, how we’re going to use Kenley to kind of attack,” Mattingly said Wednesday night. “I try to give Kenley the toughest job, just to harden him up. He’s from the Netherlands, everything’s good for him.”

The impetus for the strategy has been Brandon League’s struggles in his last eight games (8.64 ERA, blown save, two losses, 1.80 WHIP). You wonder whether Mattingly will stay committed to his approach if League gets his mechanics straightened out, or if Jansen has a momentary blip, as relievers always do. League is earning nine times as much as Jansen and some teams would feel pressure to keep a well-compensated player happy.

For now, it’s working, and it’s another reason to think that Mattingly, in his third season, is growing in the job. Good managers -- think Tony LaRussa, Bruce Bochy, Joe Maddon -- tend to innovate. Maybe Mattingly is finally confident enough -- or desperate enough -- to start doing things his way.