We all know what an enormous asset it is to have a dependable closer in your bullpen. It helps define the roles of all the other relief pitchers. It eases the minds of everyone else on the team. It instills a sense of panic among your opponents. 

In Kenley Jansen’s case, those benefits seemed to be magnified tenfold this season. He’s been one of the top closers in the league for 11 years. He has 20 saves in 59 career postseason games, to the tune of a 2.20 ERA. He’s always the biggest guy on the field, an intimidating presence to hitters who can dot a cutter like Mariano Rivera. Most importantly, he had been nails for the Red Sox in 2023. He was 9 for 10 in save opportunities and the biggest reason why Boston’s bullpen had been so effective all season long. 

And then he got his 400th save. 

I don’t want to diminish the feat in itself. Jansen is only the seventh player in MLB history to save 400 games. The other six guys — Mariano Rivera, Trevor Hoffman, Lee Smith, Francisco Rodriguez, John Franco, and Billy Wagner — are all legitimate MLB legends whose names immediately resonate with baseball fans all over the world. Kenley Jansen is undoubtedly one of the greatest closers to ever play the game. 

But notching his 400th save has drastically stalled what many of us thought was the official coming out party for the 2023 Red Sox. 

Jansen was on another level last Wednesday night when he toed the rubber in Atlanta against the very team that he grew up rooting for from his home in Curacao. He was on a mission to record his 400th save that night at Truist Park, 100% focused on shutting the Braves down to close out the Red Sox’ best win of the 2023 season. 

Jarren Duran and Triston Casas had led the way that night for the offense, further cementing themselves as future bedrocks from the burgeoning Red Sox developmental system. Brayan Bello, another potential homegrown star, tossed the best six innings of his career against arguably the most loaded lineup in baseball.  For one of the first times all season, Boston featured great starting pitching, great relief pitching, and timely hitting all in the same game. They had won nine of their last eleven, and the future was looking brighter than it has in years. 

Kenley Jansen took the mound in the ninth inning and pumped in fastballs of 98-99 mph for the first time in a decade. He hit his spots and overpowered Atlanta, closing out his 400th save with a punch out just as he’d probably envisioned himself doing for the past couple years. It was perfect, likely the high point of his entire career (since fake World Series titles don’t count). Jansen had dug down deep to find a level of power and dominance that was unrecognizable to all who had seen him pitch recently, perhaps even unrecognizable to himself. 

Two nights later, we realized that he had dug down too deep. Way too deep. 

After an off day Thursday, Jansen entered in the top of the ninth inning Friday night to try and close out a 6-5 Boston lead over the St. Louis Cardinals. Somehow, things were looking even better than they had on Wednesday. James Paxton had returned from the dead to throw five great innings in his first start since the 1.1 total innings he pitched in 2021. The Red Sox, whose rotation had struggled so mightily all season, now boasted five starting pitchers who had all looked solid in their most recent appearances (Sale, Kluber, Bello, Houck, and Paxton). The weakest aspect of their game was finally turning into a strength. 

Then Jansen took the mound … and had absolutely nothing.

His velocity topped out at 93 mph (it usually lingers around 95), and he couldn’t find the plate. He walked the first hitter he faced, Paul DeJong, on four uncompetitive pitches. After DeJong stole second base, Lars Nootbaar promptly drove him in with a game-tying, save-blowing single to center. Jansen then fell behind the next hitter, Nolan Gorman, who eventually pounded a 3-2 pitch into the right field seats to give the Cardinals an 8-6 lead that they would not relinquish. 

Jansen had worked himself up so much for his 400th save that he overexerted and overextended himself. There was a damn good reason that Kenley Jansen had not thrown 98 mph for so many years. Because he was smart enough not to do it. Because he knew that if he threw that kind of gas, especially in his mid-thirties, he’d pay for it on the back end. And his team would pay for it too. Which is exactly what happened Friday night. 

The Boston Red Sox paid for Kenley Jansen’s shortsighted exuberance over reaching the landmark plateau of 400 saves. It cost them a win. 

Jansen knew that he’d break 400 soon, but that wasn’t enough for him. He wanted the sizzle to go with the steak. He wanted the storybook moment. When he saw the opportunity to notch his 400th save in Atlanta against his favorite childhood team, he decided to empty his tank in pursuit of that objective.

It wasn’t a selfish act. I think he just got caught up in the moment and the excitement. But he should have known better. A 13-year veteran should know damn well that no single game or personal milestone in mid-May is worth the potential long-term ramifications of compromising the performance of a player of his importance. A win hangs in the balance virtually every single time Kenley Jansen takes the hill. If he throws 15 pitches too hard one night, he should be fully aware that it could result in his effectiveness being significantly reduced the next time he is called upon. He knows how to close out games without pushing the limit, but he chose not to do so on that one night in Atlanta.

The night of the last Boston Red Sox victory. 

Jansen should have known better than to push the envelope, and Friday’s brutal is entirely on his ledger. However, he is not the one to blame for what happened the following day. The responsibility for that loss falls on the shoulders of one man. 

Alex Cora.

I’m the first one to defend Alex Cora in the face of those who doubt his managerial prowess. This is the first instance that I can recall of being utterly disgusted at one of his decisions. Regardless, there’s no other way to describe my feelings on Cora summoning Jansen yet again to close out a 3-1 lead Saturday afternoon.

Cue meltdown number two, which was every bit as painful as the first.

The day after James Paxton returned to being a talented starting pitcher, Chris Sale returned to being a dominant force. Sale pitched eight majestic innings Saturday afternoon, striking out nine Cardinals and surrendering only one run. But Cora threw it all down the drain by going back to Jansen. 

Just like Friday night, it began with a four-pitch walk, (this time to Paul Goldschmidt) born of decreased velocity and a complete lack of command. Jansen managed to reach 94 mph, but at no point could he spot his pitches the way he normally does. Wilson Contreras walked next thanks, in part, to a pitch violation that Jansen would repeat twice more in that same inning. Amazingly, he retired Nolan Arenado on a pop fly. But then Nolan Gorman stepped up to the plate to stomp on our nuts yet again.

Gorman drilled a double to right-center to plate Goldschmidt. With the tying and go-ahead runs in scoring position, Jansen intentionally walked Brendan Donovan to set up a game-ending double play. When Alec Burleson hit a bouncing ball to second baseman Pablo Reyes, it appeared for a moment like Jansen did indeed induce the twin-killing he needed in order to preserve the win. Alas, shortstop Kiké Hernandez had to rush the return throw to first, which bounced past Justin Turner and into the Red Sox dugout to put St. Louis ahead for good, 4-3. 

Jansen threw 15 pitches recklessly hard on Wednesday, blew a save due Friday due to the resultant fatigue, and then Alex Cora called on him to close out yet another game against the same team the very next day. It was a gross managerial blunder, in my opinion the worst of Cora’s career. I still stand by my opinion that he is the best manager the Red Sox have ever had, but a decision like this cannot possibly be justified.

A worn out Jansen cost the Red Sox the first game of a three-game series against a team that had arrived in Boston with a record of 13-25. The series was on the line the next day, and Cora opted to go back to the well despite Jansen’s obvious need for a rest day. Cora trusted his closer to bounce back immediately after a terrible blown save, which is admirable in theory. But a decision like that cannot be made in a vacuum. A manager has to consider the context of that decision in its entirety. All things considered, I’m befuddled that Cora could not read the writing on the wall and go to John Schreiber or Chris Martin for the save on Saturday, who were both readily available to pitch.

The Red Sox were in perfect position to take the first two games of the series thanks to an adequate offensive attack and incredibly uplifting performances from Paxton and Sale. Instead, they came away with two soul-crushing losses. They’ve played two more games since then, losing them both by a combined score of 19-2. The offense was bound to go cold at some point, but one can’t help but wonder if the twin meltdowns of Jansen, who had anchored a reliable bullpen all season long until Friday night, may have deflated the team to a certain degree.  

Kluber and Houck followed up their decent performances in Philadelphia with wet farts in Fenway on Sunday and Monday. The third best offense in MLB has gone silent in the park that they were assembled to rake in. And now John Schreiber is headed to the IL with a lat injury. A few days after I’d been convinced that the Red Sox had finally achieved a well-rounded three-pronged attack (starting pitching, offense, bullpen), I’m now wondering if any of those elements can be sustainably good over the balance of the season. 

Can Devers, Verdugo, Yoshida, Casas, Turner, Duran, Valdez, and all the rest truly be an offensive force all season? Will the rotation ever balance out?
Can Jansen bounce back from the guilt and humiliation of these two losses and return to being the rock of a solid bullpen? 

The Red Sox have now lost six of their last seven, all but erasing the goodwill that had been generated among fair-weather fans during the eight-game winning streak. In the eyes of the vocal minority, Bloom sucks once again and the team is back to being a bunch of bargain basement losers. 

If Jansen had kept the good of the team, rather than his own personal milestone, in perspective last Wednesday night in Atlanta, there is little doubt in my mind that the Red Sox would have come away with those two wins against St. Louis. Jansen’s lack of focus, along with Cora’s poor judgement, has completely rewritten the narrative of the last two weeks, an issue that is now magnified even more due to Schreiber’s injury.

It has also rewritten my feelings regarding the post-game interviews, the touching video tribute assembled by current and former teammates, and all the praise that was heaped on Kenley Jansen the night of his 400th save. By all accounts, he is an incredibly nice, gracious, supportive teammate that was universally loved in the clubhouse. Verdugo, Turner, Hernandez, and all the rest had nothing but phenomenal things to say about him. On Wednesday night, I found it all incredibly heartwarming. 

Now, a mere seven days later, I think of it as nothing but an over-the-top, enabling festival of everything that baseball should not be. A shameless promotion of individuality over team success. I can’t help but think that if Jansen earned his 400th save anywhere other than Truist Park, maybe the Red Sox would be 25-17 right now instead of 22-20. Maybe if Jansen wasn’t so excited by the thought of being propelled into history under the best circumstances he could ever dream of, he’d have maintained his composure and played for the long haul instead of getting lost in the moment.  

If the Red Sox can reel off another prolonged winning streak, my attitude about the 400th save celebration may change. But first I need to see both Jansen and the offense get back to normal. I need to be reassured that the last weekend’s disaster was a mere stumbling block along the winding path of a Major League season rather than a deflating death knell for the 2023 Boston Red Sox. 

I realize that it’s impractical to blame one single player for a four-game losing streak. Hell, there’s plenty of blame to pass around the locker room for the last two losses alone, considering that the offense has scored two runs in the past 18 innings. But every once in awhile, we observe a cascading domino effect that feels like it can be traced back to one or two particularly brutal root causes. 

We’ve seen the Red Sox fight like hell all season long. Aside from the four-game sweep in Tampa Bay (the days of Bobby Dalbec at shortstop and the massacre of Richard Bleier), this is the first time all year where I’ve felt that the entire team is falling flat. 

Is the Red Sox locker room actually fragile enough to be irreparably demoralized by these two devastating losses? I feel like there is very little loser DNA in that clubhouse. However, the team’s record is now careening back down towards .500, and Nick Pivetta is set to square off with Luis Castillo on Tuesday night. 

How much can one team take? 


By Luke

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