LOS ANGELES - For going on a week, Matt Kemp hasn't been exactly right.
It's just a week. Part of a week. A silly thing, really, hardly worth mentioning, and I hate to even bring it up.
But, you know, when a guy spends a month as the most ferocious player in the game (pre-Josh Hamilton), then goes all mortal in the batter's box, even for what amounts to an eye-blink, you ask him about that left hamstring, right?
It was sore enough Sunday in Chicago to limit Kemp to a pinch-hit appearance. It's been sore enough that he starts methodically in center field and generally must glide to a stop. And maybe this is something and maybe it's not, but he's four for his last 18, three of those hits in the same game, hasn't really attacked the ball and, as a result, hasn't really driven it, either.
So, about the hamstring …
"Good," Kemp said Friday night. "It's good."
And that, really, is the point.
He wears a T-shirt that honors the organist at Dodger Stadium, a nice woman named Nancy Bea. He hugs Don Newcombe before batting practice. He challenges Magic Johnson to a game of one-on-one. A couple weeks ago, he helped build a house down the road from the ballpark with Habitat for Humanity. He leads the Los Angeles Dodgers' clubhouse at 27. And he shows up to play every stinkin' day, whether his hamstring really is good or not.
During a time when enough athletes have stretched their job descriptions to include qualities such as self-absorption and defensiveness, Kemp would seem to be focused first on not massaging his hamstring in front of anybody.
When he talks, the way he talks, I'm beginning to hear Derek Jeter. There's earnestness in what he says and how he says it, along with a hint of impatience. There's a plan, every day, starting with the lineup on the wall. His name is listed third. There's a game to play. On Friday night, he played in his 397th in a row, a commitment that extends from the summer of 2009, through a trying 2010, through a breakout 2011, into an amazing first month of 2012 and all the way to his oh-fer Friday against the Colorado Rockies.
"I just feel like I'm not good when I'm on the bench watching games," Kemp said. "I don't like sitting and watching."
He conducts himself as a franchise player, which - even before the $160 million came along - he is. That's not just chasing 50-50, which is fine, but carrying oneself with dignity, and outworking the last guy on the bench, and answering for the crummy stuff that baseball piggybacks on the good stuff. It won't all be great, because it can't be. Every day in baseball brings a chance for a poor decision, or a tender hamstring, and then the rest is about what you're going to do about it.
More than any other game, this one rewards a good heart and better habits. Fake either, and you become a leader without followers and, worse perhaps, a .240 hitter without relevance.
"This is his team," Dodgers newcomer Mark Ellis said of Kemp. "He knows this is his team. And we know it's his team."
It has served the Dodgers well so far. Their 21-11 record is best in the National League. They've put six games between themselves and the second-place San Francisco Giants. Chris Capuano is 5-0, Ted Lilly is 4-0, Andre Ethier has driven in 32 runs and Kemp, every night, is the best player on the field.
There'll have to be more to it than that, of course. But, for the moment, in what has been a soft division in a soft league, it's been more than enough. They'll play hard for manager Don Mattingly, they'll pitch well from the starting rotation, they'll catch the ball, and they'll hope to get to the middle of their lineup with men on base. Soon, Kemp will get his arms extended again, and he'll own right-center field again, and then it'll be easier still.
Plenty, of course, could go wrong, but it apparently won't be for lack of leadership.
"I've always worked hard," Kemp said. "Now, I have different responsibilities. I have to keep my team up, and that means I have to be up. You know, you learn a lot over the years about yourself. What type of player you want to be. What kind of teammate you want to be. What kind of person you want to be."
At the end of the night, over the booms of Friday night fireworks, Kemp sang a song's refrain in a crowded clubhouse. He was 0 for 3 and the Rockies walked him once. But, the Dodgers won, 7-3. And that seemed plenty good enough for Kemp.
"I really don't care," he said. "As long as we win."
But, seriously, the hamstring?
Kemp laughed. It's a little better every day, he said. Soon, he said.
"It is what it is," he said. "Nobody's ever 100 percent in this game."
Yeah. Hardly worth mentioning. It's good.
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