LOS ANGELES – Matt Kemp returned from the disabled list Tuesday night to discover what he may have expected, that he’d been supplanted as most favored Los Angeles Dodgers position player by 22-year-old Cuban Yasiel Puig, who has been to the local ballclub what Teen Wolf once was to suburban high school basketball.
Kemp went off to heal and rehabilitate his right hamstring on May 30. Four days later Puig debuted and had two hits. The next day, Puig had three more hits, two of them home runs. By Tuesday afternoon, Puig, 20 games into his big-league career, was batting .442, had seven home runs and had triggered a national debate over his All-Star worthiness.
It was all very splashy and sold plenty of T-shirts, except in those 20 games the Dodgers had a record of 10-10, which was better than they had been, but it still left them in last place and amounted to a half-game’s worth of progress in the NL West.
So, it was with some hope and a little trepidation the Dodgers watched Kemp walk back through their clubhouse doors. The franchise player – in name, reputation and paycheck – had suffered through a miserable first two months of the season, perhaps because his surgically-repaired left shoulder remained achy, perhaps because he’d fallen into unproductive mechanical habits last season, when he injured the shoulder. Regardless, he was batting .251 with two home runs in 210 plate appearances when his hamstring grabbed, commencing the chain of events that led to Puig, ahead of the organizational plan.
Throaty boos followed Kemp to the disabled list. He wore them the best he could, but went down on the heels of a 1-for-16 stretch that included 10 strikeouts and a lot of trudges back to the dugout.
Going on a month later, cheers took him back. In the middle of a four-run sixth inning that would beat the San Francisco Giants, 6-5, on Tuesday night, in the middle of a rally that would lead to the Dodgers’ first four-game winning streak of the season, Kemp singled. The pitch from Mike Kickham struck near the end of Kemp’s bat, may even have broken Kemp’s bat, but the ball landed safely in right-center field, and two batters later Kemp would score.
He’d flown out to right in his first at-bat, then fouled to first in his second. After the latter, he’d snatched at the bat barrel in frustration, lost his grip, and watched the bat clatter to the turf.
So, a hit was a hit. Progress. A way back. It was, perhaps, a reasonable sign for a team that gave away the first two months of the season, that fields one of the sorrier offenses in the league, and desperately needs Kemp to be capable again. And it was Kemp who raced from shallow center field to the warning track with two out in the ninth to snag Marco Scutaro’s long drive. Kemp skittered to rest on the warning track, bounced to his feet, gleefully pile-drived the fence, and screamed in satisfaction.
What went through his head at that moment?
“Game over,” he said. “Game over. Another win.”
He said he felt fine at the plate, maybe a little quick at times. But, fine, good enough for day one.
“He’s ready to play,” Dodgers manager Don Mattingly had said after writing in Kemp’s name fifth, at the tail end of Puig, Adrian Gonzalez and Hanley Ramirez. “He’s ready to be himself. That’s the thing; we don’t need Matt Kemp coming back as a rehab player. We need him to come back as Matt Kemp.”
That’s been a bit difficult to define in ’13. When upright, Kemp wasn’t even the player he was in ’12, when he missed a third of the season with hamstring issues. He certainly was not the player he was in ’11, when he was about the best player in the game.
“No more questions about my shoulder,” Kemp had said pregame. “My shoulder feels good. My hamstring feels good. I’m ready to hit.
“I feel good. My mind’s right. I’m ready to play baseball.”
He’d put four weeks between himself and his slump, and four more weeks of recovery time on his shoulder, and four weeks of rehab on his hamstring. That, perhaps, amounts to a fresh start.
“For me it is,” he said. “I didn’t do too well the first month, first month-and-a-half of the season. I just want to go out there and do what I can to contribute. We’ll see. All you can do is play.”
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