LOS ANGELES – Through with being the best player in the Pacific Coast League for two days, which had followed five weeks of being the best player in the National League, Matt Kemp stood on the top step of the Dodgers' dugout in the moments before game time Tuesday night.
His hamstring was good to go again. He'd worn a hoodie and hung over the dugout rail plenty long enough. For more than two weeks somebody else had played center field for the Dodgers, somebody else batted third, and he'd made no ground on his preseason declaration that 50 homers and 50 steals were within his considerable capabilities. In the 15½ days he was on the disabled list, Kemp was caught and passed in all the Triple Crown categories. For a man who'd played every day for more than two years, the schedule limped past.
In the afternoon lead-up to Kemp's return, the talk of course was Kemp, and the renewal of his seemingly friendly MVP-off with Ryan Braun of the Milwaukee Brewers, who happened to be in town.
(You could tell from the booing. That, and when Braun was generous enough to flip a foul ball into the left-field seats, a fan dismissively threw it back. "It didn't really surprise me too much," said Braun, who grew up in the San Fernando Valley, a few miles from Dodger Stadium.)
Kemp holds no grudge against Braun, whom he called, "One of my homeboys," no matter what Major League Baseball's press releases say about him. Had Braun's 50-game suspension for performance-enhancing drugs been upheld, in fact, he would be returning Thursday, in time for the final game of this series. As it is, Braun hit his 14th home run in the first inning, and drove in his 35th and 36th runs, which did not please the anti-Brauns in the crowd.
Before the game, Kemp, as he has all along, attempted to steer away from the Braun controversy.
[MLB Full Count: Watch live look-ins and highlights for free all season long]
"His numbers are the same as they were last year," he said. "Whatever happened – if it did happen or didn't happen – he's still the same player that he was last year."
Funny that it was Kemp who missed the early part of the series, and not Braun, but these are the little surprises that make a season, all of which put Kemp on the top step, waiting for the go-ahead to resume his.
Near where he slammed his helmet at the frustration of being forcibly removed from a ballgame three Sundays ago because of a strained left hamstring, when he knew the disabled list was calling for the first time in five years, Kemp actually found himself in a better place. You know, standings-wise.
In Kemp's absence, the Dodgers were 9-5. They'd gained a half-game, from six to 6 ½ up on the nearest team in the NL West. They still had the best record in baseball.
The Dodgers hadn't just held themselves together, hadn't just survived, but won. A lot.
They won with Tony Gwynn Jr., who played center field and not only batted .300, but drove in eight runs and stole three bases. And with Bobby Abreu, kicked to the curb by the Angels, picked up and dusted off by the Dodgers, for whom he played left field and batted .368 with a .510 on-base percentage. And with catcher A.J. Ellis, who hit .326 and drove in 12 runs while Kemp was gone, and James Loney, who hit .319, and Andre Ethier, who hit .340 with 10 RBIs. Elian Herrera, the 27-year-old rookie subbing for injured Mark Ellis at second base, batted .310. Backup catcher Matt Treanor started three games, hit two home runs and batted .444.
The pitching was taut enough, and the runs – on some days – seemed to come out of nowhere. All while Kemp watched from the rail.
A.J. Ellis recalled manager Don Mattingly standing in the middle of the clubhouse in spring training, encouraging them and warning, "It's going to take more than 25 guys."
"He was obviously right," Ellis said as Kemp dressed a couple lockers down. "It would be a collective effort. One guy doesn't make this team."
He helps plenty, though.
So Kemp didn't have to come back to save them. He just had to come back, get his legs under him, find his swing, tend to his hamstring, and play. The Dodgers have life, and more could come. They were interested enough in starter Roy Oswalt to offer him a contract, though Oswalt on Tuesday chose the Texas Rangers instead. General manager Ned Colletti has banged the phones since May 1 or thereabouts, the earliest he can recall pushing trade discussions. There's some bad baseball being played out there, and that means early white flags.
[Big League Stew: Dodgers first baseman proposes dramatic changes to umpiring, replay]
The Dodgers are by no means a great team, but they've been plenty good enough for nearly a third of the season, even without Kemp. They lost Tuesday night to Braun and the Brewers, by a 2-1 score. Kemp laced a ninth-inning double at the end of a stirring at-bat against closer John Axford and was stranded at third base. Braun was the hero, Kemp got better as the night went on and was left 90 feet away, and sometimes that's how it goes.
It's all the stuff, perhaps, a guy thinks about from the top step, ready to play again. What he missed. What is left. And how great it is to start over.
"I woke up this morning," Kemp said, "feeling like it was opening day."
Other popular content on Yahoo! Sports:
• Barry Bonds will be very sad not to get into Hall on first try
• Reds' Todd Frazier performs Heimlich Maneuver, saves choking man at lunch
• College hoops player victim of shark attack while surfing