Kemp still has time to redeem lost campaign
Battling injury, Dodgers slugger has seen numbers decline from last season
PHOENIX -- This has been Matt Kemp's lost season.He missed 51 games during the first half with a strained left hamstring. On Tuesday night at Chase Field, Kemp was back in the lineup after missing several games because of a frayed labrum in his left shoulder after colliding with the center-field fence on Aug. 28 at Coors Field. "It is what it is. Injuries are part of the game," Kemp said after the Dodgers' 1-0 loss to the D-backs. "But I've got to find a way to have consistent at bats and go out and help my team in any way possible to win games." Kemp did his best on Tuesday. He whiffed in his first two at bats against Arizona right-hander Ian Kennedy before smacking a hanging seventh-inning breaking pitch to left field for a double. In the bottom of the inning after the D-backs scored their only run, the center fielder caught a shallow fly ball and made a perfect rainbow throw to the plate that erased Miguel Montero, keeping the Dodgers in the game. But it wasn't enough. The reconstituted Dodgers are eying a Wild Card playoff berth as they keep losing ground on the first-place Giants in the National League West with only 20 games to go. Kemp has been in out and of the lineup so much, the Dodgers might as well install a revolving door. "It's been a challenging year for Matt," Dodgers manager Don Mattingly said before the game. "It's the first time he's had to stop and start. Play, stop. Play, stop. Play banged up. It's hard to really keep your rhythm when you play like that. It's probably a pretty good learning experience for him." Asked if there was anything in particular he learned from the experience, Kemp said stoically: "Yeah, don't get injured." All this has made it pretty tough on the Dodgers, who haven't been able to maintain their equilibrium without him. Last season was Kemp's breakout year. He played in 161 games and led the NL with 39 homers, 126 RBIs and 115 runs scored. He finished second in the league MVP voting behind Milwaukee's Ryan Braun and won the Hank Aaron Award as Major League Baseball's top slugger. With Kemp entering this season at age 27, the Dodgers were seeking a repeat performance and despite financial and ownership problems signed him during the offseason to an eight-year, $160 million contract. This year, though, the injuries occurred. Through Tuesday night, Kemp has played in just 86 games with the obvious diminishing offensive numbers: 18 homers, 56 RBIs and 63 runs scored. How that has impacted the Dodgers can only be measured in wins and losses. They are 74-68, trail the Giants by six games, but are still right there in the Wild Card race a game behind the defending World Series-winning Cardinals. A healthy, thriving, 2011 version of Kemp might have made all the difference. "You never really know," D-backs manager Kirk Gibson said. "He's obviously very talented and was off to an incredible start. Then he got hurt, came back for a short time and got hurt again. That couldn't have helped them. I don't know if he ever got back in the form he was early in the year when he was just going off." Gibson is right, of course. The biggest chunk of Kemp's offensive production for the season occurred in April, when he hit .417 with 12 homers and 25 RBIs. Before he was hurt for the first time his on base percentage (.490) and slugging percentage (.893) were gaudy numbers. Not so coincidentally, the Dodgers were 17-7 at the end of that month and had a four-game lead. Kemp strained his hamstring on May 13 and missed 16 days. He played two more games and then didn't resurface again until July 13. By that time the Dodgers had a half-game lead on the Giants. Kemp and his team haven't been the same since. He's had only six homers and 28 RBIs since the date of the original injury. Consequently, since then the Dodgers have suffered a 12-game turn in the standings. But, this is the season of the new extra Wild Card berth in both leagues and the Dodgers still have something to play for. If the division title slides from their reach, there's the specter of the one-game "win and in" playoff game against the other Wild Card winner on Oct. 5. Win that and it's back to the NL Division Series and who knows what can happen next? Kemp said the next days are all that remain in the consciousness of him and the team. He'll be playing it out with the sore shoulder, but thus far he's not disappointed in his lost season. "I'd be disappointed if we didn't make the playoffs," he said. "Like I say, injuries are part of the game. We still have 20 games to play. We'll see how this season ends. Hopefully this season ends with us in the playoffs and making it to the World Series. If that happens, definitely, all this will have been worth it."
Barry M. Bloom is national reporter for MLB.com and writes an MLBlog, Boomskie on Baseball. Follow@boomskie on Twitter. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.