Matt Kemp should hit first
With Rafael Furcal injured, perhaps L.A.'s most exciting hitter could lead off
SAN FRANCISCO -- I'm going to say something here, but before I say it, promise me you'll hear me out. Promise me you won't fall out of your chair laughing, at least not until you give me a chance to state my case. I can assure you, it isn't the weird travel, that endless evening in San Diego or the sleep deprivation getting to me. I have actually given this a lot of thought, and I believe it makes complete sense.
At least for now. At least while Rafael Furcal, who was hitting just .192 with a .250 on-base percentage out of the leadoff spot anyway, is out for what is likely to be 4-6 weeks after he left Monday's game with a broken left thumb. At least until the rest of the Dodgers' offense begins to click. Or maybe longer, who knows?
Of course, this idea would have been completely absurd if it had been raised, say, last year, when Kemp was shattering his previous career high by striking out 170 times. But Kemp is a different player this year. He isn't overanxious at the plate. He draws walks. He runs the bases like a guy who knows how to run the bases, or at least like a guy who has been working closely with coach Davey Lopes all spring.
I arrived at this conclusion sometime around the middle innings of the Dodgers' game on Monday night, a 6-1 victory over the San Francisco Giants before a sellout -- and apparently well-behaved -- crowd of 40,870. Perhaps I should have been paying more attention to other things, like L.A. starter Clayton Kershaw's latest masterpiece (6 2/3 shutout innings, reducing his ERA to 1.37 after three starts) or second baseman Jamey Carroll's three-hit performance, after he absolutely nailed it while taking turns with Giants reliever Jeremy Affeldt in addressing the crowd before the game about the importance of keeping this rivalry from turning violent off the field as it did last week at Dodger Stadium.
But once the wheels started turning on this, there was no stopping it.
When you think about it, with Furcal out, is there really anyone on this roster right now who is better-suited to hit in the leadoff spot than Kemp? His .537 OBP is by far tops on the team, and while he isn't going to keep that up all year -- it is one of those mathematical aberrations you often see in early April -- it does bode well for the rest of the season. He is hitting .441, also best on the club. He isn't striking out much anymore, his seventh-inning whiff against Ramon Ramirez just his fourth in 41 plate appearances this season.
He has drawn a team-leading seven walks. And after being widely panned for his 55.9 percent success rate stealing bases last year, he is a perfect 7-for-7 so far in 2011, including a swipe of second base in the second inning that put him in position to score the game's first run on James Loney's subsequent single. For now, in fact, Kemp actually is on pace to shatter Maury Wills' franchise record of 104 steals.
"They need to stop walking him, because that is a double or a triple at least," Kershaw said. "He is really fun to watch."
As much fun as it is to watch Kemp, it is even more fun these days to actually be Kemp.
"It has been fun," he said. "It has been fun since the first day of spring training."
But lest we get too caught up in thinking about how much fun it would be for the rest of us to see Kemp leading off, perhaps we should check with the only man who could actually make that happen. So, when all the other reporters had cleared out of manager Don Mattingly's office after the game -- I mean, I couldn't have all of them laughing at me for making the mere suggestion, could I? -- I asked him if this was something he would ever consider.
"No," Mattingly said, after a momentary pause. And then, after another pause, he went on. "He is too valuable in the middle. I told him, him and Andre [Ethier] both, that I was going to put them third and fourth, and that was our plan, unless something really blows up and goes horribly wrong."
Fair enough, although losing Furcal might qualify as something going horribly wrong. But even if Kemp were to bat leadoff, it's not like it would sap him of his power, although it would eliminate any chance runners would be on base when he came up in the first inning. But through 10 games this season, while hitting just one home run and driving in just five runs, Kemp has demonstrated a newfound ability to have quality at-bats, to get on base a lot and to run the bases aggressively but intelligently.
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After that second-inning steal, he broke hard off the bag on Loney's hit, a liner that probably should have been caught by Giants second baseman Freddy Sanchez but wasn't, and when the ball caromed off Sanchez's glove and kicked away, Kemp was able to score easily.
"It was just a line drive, and I got a big secondary [lead]," Kemp said. "If he had caught the ball, I probably would've gotten doubled off, but he didn't. It hit his glove, and I scored a run."
Kemp did run himself into an out at third base in the fifth, the second out of that inning, but it was a forgivable out. With runners on first and second and one out, Kemp pulled a sinking liner to left field that bounced in front of Pat Burrell, skipped under his glove and headed for the wall. As Carroll and Ethier scored ahead of him, Kemp kept right on running around second and was tagged out by Pablo Sandoval as he dived into third.
"To me, that's a good risk there, especially with one out, because you have a chance to get into scoring position there," Mattingly said. "They had to do everything right to get him, so I'm fine with that."
The only thing Mattingly isn't fine with, apparently, is the idea of putting Kemp at the top of the lineup. No matter how much fun it might be to think about.
Tony Jackson covers the Dodgers for ESPNLosAngeles.com.
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