Debate continues as Kemp, Braun dominate
LOS ANGELES -- Months later, whether they like it or not, it's still about Matt Kemp and Ryan Braun. These are arguably the two best players in the National League, and on Tuesday night at Dodger Stadium, Braun's two-run homer was the difference for his Brewers in a 2-1 decision.
Returning to action after a 15-day disabled list visit to heal a left hamstring strain, Kemp showed little rust as 51,137 greeted each of his plate appearances with the familiar "MVP!" chant that could have been interpreted as a Braun taunt.
Facing Michael Fiers, a right-hander making his first Major League start, Kemp struck out, flied deep to right and tapped out. In his final at-bat, leading off the ninth, Kemp lined closer John Axford's ninth pitch of a classic confrontation to the left-center gap for a double.
But there would be no late heroics this time for the Dodgers. After Andre Ethier was drilled by a fastball, Jerry Hairston Jr., unable to get a bunt down, tapped into a double play and James Loney's groundout ended it.
"Matt's a great player, and you expect it from him," shortstop Dee Gordon said of Kemp's attempt to rally his club late. "Everyone has high expectations for him, and it's rough sometimes. He has high expectations for himself.
"It's great having him back. He swung the bat well, and he's going to continue to do it. He's our leader -- verbally and in every other way."
Kemp was uncharacteristically subdued in the aftermath, giving clipped answers.
"Exciting," he said, summing up his emotions. "I felt good. It's good to be back with my team. I had some pretty good at-bats. Hopefully, we can pick up where we left off."
The Dodgers held their own in their best player's absence, going 9-5, and have the Majors' best record at 32-17. A one-run loss is nothing to get worried about in the big picture. Kemp is back, bringing a game-breaking threat to the heart of the lineup every night.
"It's always great to have one of the best players in the game in your lineup," said Hairston, who flourished for the Brewers in their postseason run last October with a .385 batting average in 11 games. "I'm definitely glad to get Matt back. He had a great at-bat in the ninth, and then I didn't come through, hitting into that double play."
As Braun's teammate last year, Hairston has a keen awareness of the gifts of both players. He sees few in their class.
"In our league," Hairston said, "I would say those two guys are probably the best. They can do everything -- run, hit with power, play good defense and come through under pressure. Those two guys are as good as it gets."
About 90 minutes before he was to return to center field, Kemp sat in the home dugout and addressed his excitement in returning to the party after a two-week layoff.
Inevitably, as Kemp expressed how good he felt and how prepared he was to resume attacking fastballs and off-speed stuff, Braun's name surfaced. Kemp and Braun have become joined at the hip, it seems, since they ran 1-2 -- Braun, then Kemp -- in the 2011 National League Most Valuable Award balloting.
The expectation that Kemp, given his superior production numbers, would bear resentment over Braun's victory at the polls never has materialized in any form. Even as Braun was exposed to a bitter-cold winter of performance-enhancing drug accusations and eventual exoneration, Kemp never joined the camp of the dissenters crying foul over the MVP Award slight.
"That's one of my homeboys, one of my favorite players," Kemp was saying before the game when asked about Braun. "I hope he continues to have a great season."
When an effort was made to pursue the PED case, Kemp said he was closed for business.
"That's over," he said. "I'm done talking about that. His numbers are the same as last year. I don't see a change. He's the same guy he was last year."
Braun is a native Southern Californian, Mission Hills born, schooled on John Elway's turf at Granada Hills High School before moving on to the University of Miami.
He couldn't have anticipated much love from the fans back home, and they showered him with boos. A fan in the left-field boxes, awarded a free baseball by Braun after he picked up a foul ball, elected under peer pressure to heave it back on the field.
Braun handled it all with typical California cool, later bluffing another toss into the crowd before pulling it back.
Braun quickly and decisively affirmed Kemp's remark about his game not suffering under the weight of the drug matter and its lingering effects with the public.
Going the other way with a Nathan Eovaldi fastball after Nyjer Morgan's one-out single in the first, Braun put it in the right field seats -- a location not frequently visited by right-handed hitters.
"He can hit pretty much anything," Eovaldi said of Braun. "With him, you have to go up extremely high. He's a real intelligent hitter."
Eovaldi retired Braun in his second at-bat, but the MVP walked in the sixth and singled in the ninth, stealing his 10th base before getting stranded.
Dodgers manager Don Mattingly views Braun as one of the few players in Kemp's elite class.
"He can flat-out hit," Mattingly said. "You can say whatever you want; this guy can play. He steals a bag when they need one, and he's gotten a lot better in the field. He's the same type of guy [as Kemp]. He's a dangerous cat."
Kemp is hitting .355 with 12 homers and 28 RBIs in 35 games. Braun is at .315 with 14 homers, 36 RBIs in 47 games. Let the debate continue.
Lyle Spencer is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.