Commentary

Resurgent Kemp lifts Dodgers

Updated: July 5, 2010, 12:37 PM ET
By Tony Jackson | ESPNLosAngeles.com

PHOENIX -- Los Angeles Dodgers center fielder Matt Kemp was in a jovial mood Sunday after Sunday's game against the Arizona Diamondbacks. After all, his two-run, opposite-field homer off Aaron Heilman in the top of the eighth inning Sunday gave the club a 3-1 victory over the Arizona Diamondbacks at Chase Field.

But Kemp wasn't about to discuss the issue of whether the lessons he learned from what amounted to a two-day disciplinary benching last week are responsible for his recent resurgence.

"I don't know what you're talking about," Kemp said when someone raised the question.

Beginning Tuesday, the day he finally approached manager Joe Torre to clear the air and the day he was forced back into the lineup by Manny Ramirez's hamstring injury, Kemp is hitting .409 (9-for-22) with a double, three homers and seven RBIs in five games.

It is entirely possible, of course, that recent work he has done with hitting coach Don Mattingly is just as responsible for Kemp's sudden turnaround after a forgettable June in which he would have batted below .200 if he hadn't gone 5-for-8 in the final two days of the month. Or perhaps Kemp's resurgence is attributable simply to his sudden maturation as a hitter, a guy who recognizes the value of going with the pitch and hitting the ball the other way.

"That is where my strength is, letting the ball travel a little bit and using my hands," Kemp said. "That is all I need to do to be successful, not pull off the ball and take a good swing. … [Heilman] likes to throw a lot of sinkers, and his ball runs a lot. I was looking for something out over the plate, and he left one right there. I used my inside-out swing and put some good wood on it."

And as the ball just cleared the wall at the 376-foot mark in right-center field, putting the Dodgers (45-36) ahead to stay in a game that had been either scoreless or tied 1-1 for all but two innings to that point, the perpetually cool Kemp let his guard down and allowed himself a rare fist pump, and really, who could blame him? If he hadn't already done so, with that blast, Kemp officially put last weekend's reported dugout incident with bench coach Bob Schaefer behind him.

The Los Angeles Times reported late last week that Kemp told Schaefer to "leave him alone" when Schaefer confronted him in the dugout during a June 26 game against the New York Yankees for failing to back up second base. That apparently led to Torre's decision to leave Kemp's name out of the starting lineup for each of the following three games until Kemp approached Torre to discuss the matter Tuesday in San Francisco.

Since then, Kemp has repeatedly refused to address the matter publicly.

"It's between us," he said again Sunday, referring to himself and Torre.

At any rate, the matter has been reduced to one of those momentary storylines that inevitably take place over the course of a long baseball season. And really, Kemp's monthlong slump can be filed away in the same drawer.

"It could have been better," Kemp said of his first-half performance, during which he has hit .268 overall, with 15 homers, 47 RBIs and a .326 on-base percentage. "I think I basically took a month off from the team," he said of his performance. "But the season is only halfway gone, and there is still a lot of baseball left. I have some time to make up for my bad month."

As do the second-place Dodgers, who went a middling 14-13 in June, a stretch that is largely responsible for the fact that they still trail the division-leading San Diego by 3½ games in the National League West. By taking the rubber game against a Diamondbacks team that appears to be as hapless and hopeless after three games under new manager Kirk Gibson as it was under the overmatched A.J. Hinch, the Dodgers completed a 5-1 trip.

Kemp stopped short of declaring himself completely fixed, and there was evidence to support that. Batting second in the order, he had come to the plate in the sixth following Rafael Furcal's leadoff double and momentarily reverted to form. In a situation that clearly called for him to hit the ball to the right side, Kemp struck out, taking a pair of gargantuan cuts for strikes two and three. The last one, as it so often is with Kemp, was low, away and well out of the strike zone.

"At times, I still get into a mode where I'm a little bit too aggressive and swing at a bad one," he said. "Other times, I'm more relaxed, getting better at being patient and getting a good pitch to hit. … I still have a lot of work to do. I want to get better. I'll just take it game by game and at-bat by at-bat."

[+] EnlargeHong-Chih Kuo
AP Photo/Rick ScuteriHong-Chih Kuo said he wasn't upset about being left off the NL All-Star team.

Lost in the shuffle

Hong-Chih Kuo said before the game that he wasn't disappointed about not making the NL All-Star team because he wasn't thinking about it anyway. But if the selections hadn't been announced until Monday, well, it would have been hard to count Kuo out after the way he pitched Sunday.

Kuo (3-1) relieved Chad Billingsley to start the seventh inning and proceeded to strike out six of the seven batters he faced, giving up only a two-out double to Chris Young in the seventh that proved harmless. And although the Diamondbacks are notorious free-swingers, one observer said this performance had nothing to do with that.

"Those were the best two innings I have caught in my whole big league career," Dodgers catcher A.J. Ellis said.

Kuo began by striking out opposing pitcher Dan Haren, who was about to be lifted after holding the Dodgers to a run on six hits over seven innings but is such a good hitter -- he came into the game batting .435 -- that Gibson chose to send him to the plate rather than burn a pinch hitter. Kuo then blew away a pair of left-handed hitters in Kelly Johnson and Stephen Drew before striking out Justin Upton and Miguel Montero to start the eighth.

After Young's double, Kuo got Adam LaRoche, another lefty, on a called third strike, leaving left-handed batters hitless in 30 at-bats this season against the dominating Kuo.

By the numbers

7: Consecutive multiple-hit games for Furcal, a streak that was snapped Sunday when the Dodgers shortstop settled for a double, a walk and two runs scored in four trips to the plate, extending his hitting streak to eight games. The multiple-hit streak was the longest by a Dodgers player since Tommy Davis had seven consecutive multi-hit games in 1962. The only other player to do it since the team moved to Los Angeles was Duke Snider, who had eight such games in a row in 1959.

Quote of the day

"They are an aggressive-hitting team, but they're still major league hitters, and you still have to throw quality pitches. They have a dangerous lineup. Those guys can hurt you with big bats, so you still have to make quality pitches, mix speeds and go right after them, and try not to get into predictable counts." -- Dodgers right-hander Chad Billingsley, who used the Diamondbacks' free-swinging ways against them in his second consecutive stellar performance since coming off the disabled list last week, striking out eight batters (all swinging) in a six-inning effort in which he allowed a run on seven hits with one walk.

In all, the Diamondbacks struck out 16 times, the most by a Dodgers opponent this season.

Arizona is the runaway major league leader in strikeouts with 761 -- no other team has as many as 700 -- and is the only team in the majors with more strikeouts than hits (703). The Diamondbacks struck out 37 times in the three-game series with the Dodgers.

Looking ahead

The Dodgers begin a seven-game homestand to close out the first half, hosting the Florida Marlins for three beginning Monday night and the Chicago Cubs for four starting Thursday. Rookie John Ely (4-5, 3.62) goes for the Dodgers in the opener. He has been outstanding in his past two starts, allowing two earned runs over 14 innings. He will be opposed by right-hander Nate Robertson (5-6, 4.97), who has struggled in his first season back in the NL after seven years with the Detroit Tigers. In four June starts, plus an extended relief appearance in which he went 5 2/3, Robertson had a 6.57 ERA.

Monday's game begins at 6:10 p.m., an hour earlier than usual for a night game at Dodger Stadium, to accommodate a postgame fireworks display.

Tony Jackson covers the Dodgers for ESPNLosAngeles.com.

Tony Jackson

ESPNLosAngeles.com

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