This was about as well as the evening could have possibly gone for Matt Kemp, the one-time marquee player who in many ways had become the forgotten man on a Dodgers team now loaded with marquee players. Kemp hadn’t started a game since July 21, and when he had gone onto the disabled list the following day with a severely sprained left ankle, it was his third trip there this year at a point when the Dodgers were still sort of muddling, and middling, along.
Since that day, the Dodgers had gone 36-17, including an especially galling defeat last night that had ended when Kemp, coming off the bench to pinch hit in the ninth inning just hours after finally being activated from the DL, struck out on a pitch that broke a foot off the plate.
But this was a bigger, more significant step. This was Kemp in the starting lineup, something that was a surprise to just about everyone but him. He had looked good running the bases before the game, far less tentative making the turn at second base than the day before, and so the medical staff gave manager Don Mattingly clearance to put Kemp back into a lineup that was missing Carl Crawford and Andre Ethier and was getting Hanley Ramirez back after his own four-game absence with an irritated nerve in his back, the Dodgers having lost all four of those games.
And Kemp, who used to rise to these occasions with a fair amount of regularity, rose to it at the best possible time for the Dodgers, a team that was never in any real danger of blowing its huge division lead but was showing signs it was beginning to doubt itself — to the point Mattingly felt compelled to hold a brief team meeting before tonight’s game.
And then, in his first at-bat against fading Diamondbacks ace Patrick Corbin, Kemp delivered a two-out, two-run double to the wall in left field, officially starting the Dodgers on their biggest offensive explosion in more than two weeks. Kemp subsequently scored his only run of the night on Juan Uribe‘s prodigious two-run blast eight rows deep into the leftfield stands.
And then, in his second at-bat in the third inning, Kemp sent Corbin to an early shower with a shot that looked like it, too, was going to leave the yard until it wound up hitting the wall in straightaway center about five feet below that weird yellow stripe they painted on the wall — you can see it in the photo above — that separates home runs from live balls, so Kemp settled for another double.
And then, in his third at-bat, he drove in another run with a hard single up the middle, Mark Ellis scoring from second just a little before Ramirez was tagged out between second and third, ending the inning and saving Kemp from a little bit of running. And finally, in the seventh, Kemp singled again, completing a 4-for-4 return. After he went first-to-third on Uribe’s double, Mattingly sent Skip Schumaker to pinch run, and the sometimes-brooding Kemp came back to the dugout with a huge smile on his face and to a dugout full of congratulatory slaps from his teammates.
Mattingly was non-committal on whether Kemp will be back in the lineup tomorrow night, when the Dodgers can win the division by simply winning a game, saying it all depends on how Kemp’s hamstring responds — it was his left ankle that landed him on the DL, but it was his right hamstring that prevented him from returning sooner. Mattingly vowed to be careful with Kemp, just as he vowed to be careful with Ramirez.
Ramirez, by the way, also had a triumphant return, going 1-for-2 with three walks and three runs scored, and at a time when the Dodgers have four everyday-caliber outfielders if everyone is healthy, Ramirez is probably a more critical player at this point than Kemp because he is their only viable everyday shortstop. But the storyline tonight was dominated by Kemp, who reminded everyone that not only is he still a top-level major league player but he also has a flare for the dramatic and a sense of the moment.
Yes, the Dodgers staged the bulk of their scorched-earth march to an inevitable division title without Kemp. But all that really proves is that this team has the personnel to overcome losing an important player for a long period of time. It doesn’t mean that a healthy, productive, back-to-his-old-self Kemp isn’t a godsend to this team. In the treacherous, landmine-filled path through October, even the deepest, most talented teams need every weapon they can possibly have.
And as weapons go, Kemp is a pretty powerful one. In case we had forgotten, tonight provided a perfect reminder of that.