LOS ANGELES – Barely breakfast Friday morning at Dodger Stadium.
Matt Kemp appeared to be unhappy. The legend Manny Mota shook his hand in the clubhouse, and Kemp could barely muster eye contact. He turned away. Juan Uribe wrapped him in a hug near the batting cage and Kemp shrugged. He was hardly in the mood to talk. He wasn't in the lineup, fresh off the disabled list, three guys in the outfield, but not him, and he definitely lugged an unhappy vibe.
Don Mattingly appeared to be decisive. He'd go with the lineup that gave him the likeliest chance to win, one without Kemp for a day, like the way the Miami Heat feathered in D-Wade or some such analogy nobody quite got but, hey, he tried. This was a matchup decision, the right-hander today and a left-hander tomorrow, maybe a loyalty thing – the other three had been on the field for the better part of eight weeks – but above all the beginning of four healthy outfielders for three positions, what had once been called a luxury but at the moment Mattingly recognized as "a situation." Sure, Kemp was unhappy. Mattingly was decisive.
Just past breakfast Friday morning at Dodger Stadium, the home opener, big crowd, lots of cars, the San Francisco Giants in town.
Yasiel Puig appeared to be missing. The clock on the wall was moving faster perhaps than the traffic on Sunset Boulevard or Figueroa Street, however he chose to guide his luxury car through downtown L.A. and toward the ballpark. He was in the lineup, his first home opener, and yet the clubhouse was full of teammates, and then his teammates were stretching, and then batting practice was starting, and Puig most definitely was missing.
And, well, ain't that a thing.
Kemp got his ankle healthy six games into the season, Mattingly made a trying decision, the likes of which will hound him for the next six or seven months, and Puig forgot – or never knew – what time he was supposed to report for work for an early afternoon start, and now he was benched for … Kemp.
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And so, on the occasion of the Dodgers' first home game of 2014, a season that by most reckonings should run into late October, a moment of, if not crisis, at least discomfort.
Kemp, the first guy benched in the four-man outfield rotation, was given to moping. The tempestuous Puig, twice vilified for speeding, would be chastised for his lack of urgency. And Mattingly, this is his new world, the daily questions and answers about why Carl Crawford and not Andre Ethier, why Ethier and not Puig, why Puig and not Kemp, why Kemp and not Puig, and the Heat's handling of D-Wade won't always be explanation enough, certainly not in this clubhouse.
(Or, perhaps, in the bleachers. Though Kemp's return brought some of the most raucous cheers during pregame introductions, in fewer than two innings some in the crowd had changed their minds. Kemp had misplayed a first-inning single into a single and one-base error, then did not glove a fly ball to the wall in the second. The latter was a very difficult play. Yet, a chant was born, "We want Puig! We want Puig!" Kemp went 1 for 4 with an RBI double and a strikeout.)
While one club official noted, waiting on Puig 30 minutes after the Dodgers began their team stretch, "This is why we have four outfielders," so, too, arrived the very issue that will test Mattingly's leadership mettle, and the roster's championship aspirations, and the one-for-all mentality that often hoists such a team.
A leadership moment had come and gone for Kemp and now we can pretty well predict his reaction when Mattingly's finger occasionally lands on him. Mattingly is at his best in the clubhouse, in the personal relationships stretched over the course of sometimes nine months. Kemp calls him "Donnie B," though perhaps not on Friday morning. Assuming Clayton Kershaw gets past his upper back issues in a timely manner, and assuming reasonable health from the rest of a star-driven club, what sinks the Dodgers is the stuff that goes on in the 21 hours around the games. Like, for instance, the stuff that went on for the four hours leading up to Friday afternoon's game.
Meanwhile, of course this pushes the drama – right or wrong – that is Puig. A million guys have been late. A million more will be. This is two for Puig that we know of, the first coming last August in Miami, and Mattingly benched him then, as well. On Friday, depending on the source, Puig was misinformed on the schedule, or confused, or simply assumed incorrectly, none of which really matters. He was late and was benched and, again, Mattingly has been consistent on that rule.
Therefore, Kemp played. And Mattingly had taken his new and complete roster for a test drive. And Puig bailed him out. The détente is due to last a few more hours, until one of the left-handed hitters – Ethier or Crawford – is benched against Giants lefty Madison Bumgarner. But no need to think about that now. Everybody seemed relieved just to make it through the morning, barely April on Friday at Dodger Stadium.
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