Commentary

It's all in the details for Matt Kemp

Updated: April 1, 2011, 10:02 AM ET
By Ramona Shelburne | ESPNLosAngeles.com

LOS ANGELES -- For a half second, it felt like nothing had changed.

All the talk of new beginnings, all the stories about Matt Kemp's new attitude, all the praise from new manager Don Mattingly about his attention to detail, all of it felt like it was going to be gone before it had a chance to become real.

With the Los Angeles Dodgers and San Francisco Giants locked in a scoreless tie in the bottom of the sixth inning, Kemp appeared to be a little too far off third base. Worse, he appeared blase about the danger.

[+] EnlargeMatt Kemp
Jeff Gross/Getty ImagesMatt Kemp celebrates after scoring on a James Loney double in the eighth inning against the Giants.

As soon as he turned his back to home plate, Giants catcher Buster Posey fired down to third baseman Pablo Sandoval, trying to catch Kemp napping.

For a half second it seemed like Posey was about to undo all the goodwill Kemp had built for himself this spring.

For a half second, that is.

Kemp wasn't napping. He was watching.

"I saw Pablo," Kemp said. "I saw his reaction. I saw his eyes. And I knew the ball was coming."

Sandoval was set up inside the bag. The throw went to the outside. Kemp jogged home with the Dodgers' first run of the season.

Two innings later, Kemp walked for the third time, stole second base by a mile, then scored on James Loney's RBI-double to right field. It was more than enough run support for the masterful Clayton Kershaw, who struck out nine in seven scoreless innings of the Dodgers' 2-1 Opening Day win over the Giants.

"That's the plan," Kemp said. "Get on base, steal a base, make some things happen. Do something little to help the team win."

In the context of a 162-game season, it was something little.

For Kemp to re-establish himself as one of the brightest young stars in baseball, he'll have to do a lot more than what he did in Thursday's opener.

Too much went too wrong last season, for Kemp and for the Dodgers.

In one season, he went from a fan favorite to a moody, petulant young star. The Dodgers went from an up-and-coming young team coming off back-to-back National League Championship Series appearances to a franchise rotting from the owner's box on down.

The journey back from that place will be long. It's too early to know if Kemp or the team will be able to come all the way back and eventually move forward.

But it starts with little things.

Things like deciding to move his locker to the back of the clubhouse, farthest from the door.

For the last couple of years, Kemp's locker was the closest to the clubhouse door. Though he didn't ask for that spot initially, he seemed affected by it. He didn't hang out after games, didn't sit in front of his locker, holding court with teammates or reporters before games.

Most days he kept his headphones on and his head down as he went quickly from the batting cage to the weight room. Everything about him seemed guarded.

This year he's in the opposite place, literally and perhaps figuratively too -- all the way in the back of the clubhouse, near veterans Rafael Furcal, Rod Barajas and Marcus Thames. Before Wednesday's final spring training game against the Mariners he sat by his locker breaking in one of his bats. His headphones were put up on the shelf in his locker.

"It's just a change," Kemp said. "Nothing too serious. I just wanted to move my locker. Just a little change."

That may be. But the fact Kemp recognizes the need for a change at all is a positive step.

"Everything went bad for us last year," Mattingly said of the Dodgers' struggles. "Honestly, it was bad. But we talked about [it] all spring, last year is gone.

"It's something that we needed to learn from. Each guy individually that went through what they went through, I know they didn't want to play in that situation anymore. That's just no fun."

Thursday afternoon, Kemp took the first steps of that journey back. Patient, at the plate and with the process.

"He's just a great player," Mattingly said. "Guys like Matt, you always want more.

"He's got all that talent and he can do so many things that he doesn't really get a breather. He gets on the bases, they're going to have to pay attention to him. In the outfield you expect him to make plays. We expect him to get hits, drive in runs.

"He's got that ability, so you want it. You want it for him."

If Kemp wants it for himself half as much as everyone else wants it for him, the Dodgers just might find their way back too.

Ramona Shelburne is a columnist and writer for ESPNLosAngeles.com. Follow her on Twitter.

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