Dodgers get Kemp back at just right time
Slugger goes 4-for-4 with three RBIs in first start since July 21
PHOENIX -- Matt Kemp returned to the Dodgers' starting lineup from a sprained left ankle and came alive on Tuesday night at Chase Field. It couldn't have occurred at a more opportune time.
And now the Dodgers are just one win away from clinching the National League West and a berth in the playoffs, something they haven't accomplished since 2009. Their magic number is two and they can lock it all up with another victory over the D-backs here on Wednesday night.
"It feels good," Kemp said after a 4-for-4 night with a pair of doubles and three RBIs in the 9-3 win, his best offensive performance of an injury-riddled season. "It feels good just to be here with the team, be able to run out with them and compete with them and do all that. I miss baseball. I haven't been able to play in a while. You know, the crowd and being able to hear all that. It's just a good feeling."
The Dodgers have done it all without Kemp this season. The return from early-season oblivion. The historic 42-8 streak. But that was then and this is now. They haven't been to or won the World Series since 1988 and if Kemp remains healthy perhaps he can be part of attaining that ultimate goal.
Timing is everything. He returned with fellow outfielders Andre Ethier and Carl Crawford nursing nagging injuries. Thus, the door has swung wide open just as it did for Yasiel Puig, the Cuban rookie who emerged from Double-A when Kemp went on the disabled list for the first time this season at the end of May with a strained right hamstring.
Kemp has been on the DL twice since then because of shoulder inflammation and the ankle sprain. He missed most of June, most of July, all of August and the first two weeks of September. Tuesday night was just his 64th game.
With Hanley Ramirez back after a four-game absence because of his own sore left hamstring, manager Don Mattingly got to script a representative lineup with Ramirez, Adrian Gonzalez and Kemp in the middle of it.
It made a big difference. The Dodgers had previously scored just 38 runs in losing nine of 12. On Tuesday night, they piled up eight runs in the first four innings, mostly against Patrick Corbin, the D-backs' best pitcher. The trio was 6-for-9 with a homer, two doubles, five RBIs and five runs scored.
Having the right-handed-hitting Kemp return to any semblance of form "would be huge," Mattingly said.
"Just from the standpoint of lefties," he added. "It give us some other options. Matt's Matt. The last two games he's played, in D.C. he was ridiculous and tonight unbelievable."
Mattingly was referring to the game in Washington on July 21 when Kemp came off the DL from the shoulder injury and went 3-for-4 with a homer and three RBIs. Unfortunately, Kemp sprained his left ankle while half-sliding into home plate on a force play during the ninth inning of that game. The Dodgers went into first place for good the next day and Kemp returned to the DL.
That's the way the last two seasons have transpired. Kemp missed 56 games in 2012, mostly because of a series of hamstring strains. When he returned that September he injured his left shoulder running into an outfield fence, played the rest of the season hurt, and ultimately underwent surgery.
When this season opened, his power seemed to have disappeared. During April and May, Kemp hit only two of his five homers and drove in 17 of his 30 runs.
Asked if Kemp has finally overcome the shoulder issues, Mattingly said:
"I don't know about all that. I still think there's stuff that comes and goes with that. The big thing is he's a lot more athletic looking. Mac [hitting coach Mark McGwire] talks about getting him in an athletic position. And that's what you see when he gets more into a power stance where there's not a lot of movement."
Mattingly wasn't even aware until just before batting practice on Tuesday that Kemp would be available to start and play center field. Kemp was activated from the DL on Monday and pinch-hit in the ninth inning with the tying run on third and lead run on second. He whiffed swinging on a pitch outside the zone and the Dodgers lost, 2-1.
Mattingly said Kemp had run tentatively during practice, particularly on turns around the bases. He expected to only be able to use Kemp in a limited role until clearance came from the medical staff. Then miracle of miracles on Tuesday.
"Matt was a little bit of a surprise," Mattingly said before the game. "He ran bases today and he wasn't hesitant. That's all we really needed to hear and he was good to go."
Imagine the even greater surprise when Kemp came to bat and raked the ball all four times.
There were good feelings all the way around.
"I think anytime you hit the ball hard it feels good," Kemp said. "That's me, driving the ball to center field. That's what I do. Just to be able to do that the very first game back, that's a pretty good sign."
Barry M. Bloom is a national reporter for MLB.com and writes an MLBlog, Boomskie on Baseball. Follow @boomskie on Twitter. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.