GLENDALE, Ariz. – Fifty-fifty? Matt Kemp says he was kidding.
That's too bad.
For one, no he wasn't. For another, his quest for 50 homers and 50 steals was a rare, antagonistic and cool swipe at the baseball spirits, who did indeed take out Kemp at the knee, the hamstring and the shoulder. Them and the wall at Coors Field. You set out for 50-50. They send you and the ball into a fence together, see who walks away.
"That was a joke!" he insisted recently of the 50-50 talk.
Nope. Not buying it.
In fact, I'd bet he's after it again. Only, saying stuff like that aloud tends to summon the baseball beat-down gods and, sure enough, they took Kemp apart last season, piece by piece.
Fifty homers, huh? That'll cost you a shoulder.
Fifty steals? We'll take that hammy.
Still playing? Need that knee, pal?
"I'm not making no predictions," he said.
Any other ideas?
"Not like I said 60-60," he grumbled.
Due to the injuries, Kemp's 50-50 season came to speak more of the nightly odds he'd be in the lineup. He posted instead a 23-9 season over 106 games, many of those spent at half-speed because of the hamstring and knee or at half-strength because of the shoulder, which required offseason surgery.
He'd been the best player in the game, or something close to it, and then hobbled to and from the ballpark for the better part of four months. He ended the season having difficulty starting his swing or finishing it, 50-50 by then lost in a slog of games logged in the trainer's room and hours honoring pain management.
The best part of the Dodgers' season had been Kemp's 50-50 assertions, then seeing him show up on May 1 with 12 home runs, batting .417 and needing to get his running game going. He had a shot. Had he stayed upright, a real shot.
"He'd had a great year," Dodgers general manager Ned Colletti said of 2011, when Kemp went 39-40 in 161 games. "He wanted to stretch it further. I thought it was a healthy thought process."
But, 50-50? Calling one of the great seasons of all time?
"You know," Colletti said, "I don't see why not."
Instead, Kemp returned to the Los Angeles Dodgers last month in the final stages of recovery, the labrum and rotator cuff in his left shoulder repaired. He stood in the Dodgers clubhouse, a place also inhabited by the likes of freshies Adrian Gonzalez, Carl Crawford, Hanley Ramirez and Zack Greinke. He is lighter than he was a year ago when the Dodgers themselves were a touch light … on talent, on cash, on dignity.
He had his first at-bats of the spring Friday, grounding out and striking out against San Diego Padres righty Freddy Garcia. He served as the designated hitter, and, in terms of regular at-bats and time in center field, he'll creep up on opening day. Earlier Friday, the club said Crawford, the left fielder recovering from Tommy John surgery, would rest for at least a week after experiencing nerve irritation in the same elbow.
While Crawford might yet show up on opening day or soon thereafter, the news confirmed the notion that after the pitching staff, the critical piece of the Dodgers is Kemp – healthy, spirited, and chasing … something. For all new ownership has paid out, and Colletti has executed, the best player on the field is going to be Kemp. If he is not, then the NL West gets even more difficult, and October for the Dodgers could be a strain.
"Heh, what a question…" Kemp said.
But, you know…
"Um, me, I'm not worried about numbers," he said. "As long as I'm on the field, the numbers probably will be – or should be – there. I just want to stay healthy, that's it. Everything's strong. I've been working on my legs. Hamstrings feeling good. Shoulder's feeling good. I'm just working on staying healthy this whole year, playing 162 games."
A year ago, he'd said of 50-50, "I know what I'm capable of doing. … I have confidence I can achieve it. … I think I'm capable of doing it."
And everyone thought, you know, he might be right. He could do it. He'd led the league in home runs. He was second in steals. He'd be 27, just arriving at his prime. He'd played in 399 consecutive games, so he'd almost certainly be out there every day, and every inning of every day, and he'd grown into the kind of player – the kind of man – who'd play to the last inch of those days.
Ah, Matt Kemp isn't so worried about that anymore. What comes, comes. Besides, he'd just been fooling around, having a good time, telling folks what they wanted to hear. Just show up, stay healthy, let it play out.
Kemp shook his head. He says he's not after that.
And I don't believe him.
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