LOS ANGELES – Matt Kemp looked up from his chair. In a renovated clubhouse, in a season that is calling itself A Whole New Blue but is stuck for the moment near a more familiar blue, it stinks to be hitting .196.
The day before, he'd talked about Jackie, about Quentin, about honoring the distant past and moving on from the recent past. So a request for a few moments of his time Tuesday afternoon could only be about one thing – hitting .196.
"I'm about to get dressed and go out there," he said, pleasantly.
He turned back to his locker and initiated the 15-minute uniform ritual.
"Maybe later," he said, pleasantly.
"Yes, sir," he said, pleasantly.
Yeah, it stinks to be hitting .196. Even in mid-April, just 13 games into the whole new blue thing. It stinks to be hitting .138 against righties, .056 with runners in scoring position, whatever the rest of the numbers say, none of them particularly good yet. It stinks to not have a home run. Or a stolen base. For a team that has outscored only the Miami Marlins.
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Generally, numbers don't count, at least until they stop shoveling the infield in Colorado or ditch the wool caps in Chicago, whichever comes first. But this is Matt Kemp, the sweet spot on a $230 million roster who a year ago gutted through five months on a bad hamstring, finishing it with a bum knee and an unsound shoulder. Surgery on that left shoulder – his front shoulder when batting – followed soon after, a procedure in which doctors repaired a torn labrum and tidied the rotator cuff. Kemp didn't – or wasn't supposed to – swing a bat until January. He reported to spring training in the final stages of his recovery, worked his way into games, and didn't hit much.
He's still not hitting. Not yet. The Dodgers aren't scoring runs yet. Kemp's not alone. Plenty of Dodgers aren't hitting. (Though Carl Crawford and Adrian Gonzalez are.) But, they're not in the No. 3 hole. They're not the guy who nearly went 40-40 and dreamed of 50-50. They're not Matt Kemp, who last April hit .417 with 12 home runs and 25 RBIs.
"Know if he's healthy? That shoulder?" a scout asked this week.
He says he is. The Dodgers manager, Don Mattingly, says he is. Scouts see batter's box mechanics that suggest Kemp isn't entirely done with his recovery. The Dodgers seem to think Kemp is less limited by the shoulder than by the mechanical tendencies that developed in September, when, in pain and lacking strength, he batted .222, struck out 32 times, and yet got enough bat barrel on the ball to hit six home runs. (Adrian Gonzalez had surgery on his front shoulder after the 2010 season, and while he came out hot in 2011, he hit one home run in April that season in more than 100 at-bats. He hit 26 home runs over the rest of the season.)
"I don't think Matt feels unhealthy," Mattingly said.
Kemp has been well enough to take early batting practice lately, on Monday with Mattingly and hitting coach Mark McGwire in attendance.
"In BP, his swings are good," Mattingly said. "I think he's healthy. There could be lingering effects in habits."
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When the San Francisco Giants were in town, reliever George Kontos revealed they believed Kemp was vulnerable to inside fastballs. Lately, he's had trouble with breaking balls away. That doesn't leave much to get healthy on. And, apparently, it doesn't leave much to talk about.
"He's all right," Mattingly said before Tuesday night's game against the San Diego Padres. "I think Matt is a confident guy. He's been through enough to know you gotta put games behind you."
That said, he added, "I think no matter what, no matter who, you go an extended period of time without hitting, it bothers you. I'd be a lot more concerned about Matt if he was like, 'Ah, life is good. I'll be fine.'"
Pretty soon, it was later for Matt Kemp. Batting practice was over. He clowned with a couple teammates, arrived at the dugout and looked up.
"Gotta go, man," he said, pleasantly.
Down the stairs he went, toward the renovated clubhouse, toward the 14th game of new blue. He turned his head and over his shoulder he said, "I gotta go."
Presumably, he'd initiate the 90-minute pregame ritual. The Padres started right-hander Jason Marquis, against whom he had three hits in 20 career at-bats, perhaps no place to end a 51 at-bat slump.
He flied weakly to right field in the first inning. He struck out in the third. He struck out again in the sixth. There were boos, too.
Mattingly subbed out Kemp after that, as part of a double-switch.
"Matt's pressing pretty good," he explained. "Tonight he seemed really frustrated. The game didn't help. … It didn't go good for him."
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Three more at-bats had come and gone. Another runner had been left in scoring position. Another game lost.
It's mid-April. Maybe it's the shoulder, maybe it's not. He's Matt Kemp. If he's healthy, he'll hit. If he's not healthy, presumably he'll get healthy, and then he'll hit.
Still, it's not so pleasant.
Yeah, it stinks to be hitting .185.
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