Matt Kemp seems tuned in now
Dodgers OF has a different approach in 2011 and it's translating into more success
LOS ANGELES -- It must have been about three hours before game time, and the Los Angeles Dodgers were on the field, stretching in preparation for batting practice.
Manager Don Mattingly was in the dugout, giving his daily briefing to reporters. Someone from the game-day operations crew was upstairs playing some song on the stadium sound system, one of those songs you have be younger than 30 to have ever heard before.
Suddenly, there came a loud voice from left field, loud enough to be heard all the way up in the booth.
"Turn it up," yelled Matt Kemp, who is most definitely under 30, and then he yelled it again and again.
This is the Kemp of 2011, easily the loudest guy on the field, the loudest guy in a clubhouse that often is far too quiet, the guy who is constantly chirping, the guy who is virtually impossible to ignore -- the guy who a little later would deliver a two-run homer in the first inning and a spectacular, leaping catch against the wall in the sixth to preserve another outstanding performance by Hiroki Kuroda and a 3-0 victory over the Milwaukee Brewers before 42,138 on Tuesday night at Dodger Stadium.
This is the Kemp who is radically, strikingly different than the Kemp of 2010, a difficult, often-brooding sort whose season seemed to be done in by his well-documented feud with a couple of coaches who aren't around anymore and the fact he never seemed to get over being called out publicly by his general manager in April.
This year's version of Kemp seemingly always has a big smile. This year's version is thoughtful and expansive in answering questions from the media. And there are even times -- such as Tuesday night -- when he actually seems to enjoy giving those postgame interviews, even joking with reporters about the socks he was putting on as they waited for him to get dressed after he came out of the shower.
On the home run, off former teammate Randy Wolf:
"Somebody told me I was 0-for-5 with five strikeouts against him. I didn't even know that. He just got behind in the count, I think it was 3-1 and he threw me a fastball. I was just trying to hit the ball hard. I wasn't really sitting on any pitch. I was just trying to see it out of his hand and put a good swing on it."
On the catch, which took at least a double away from slugging Brewers first baseman Prince Fielder after a ball Fielder absolutely hammered died in the heavy night air:
"This field here, sometimes it robs you of home runs. I know that from experience. At night, it is definitely hard to hit home runs here. I was pretty sure I had that one."
Long before Kemp ever stepped into the box against Wolf -- and a few minutes after he was yelling for the music to be cranked up -- he was pulled aside by Dodgers manager Don Mattingly behind the batting cage for the same conversation Mattingly had just had with Andre Ethier a few minutes earlier. The message, at a time when the Dodgers (20-23) are struggling to generate any offense and had scored a total of two runs in their previous three games, was that Kemp and Ethier shouldn't feel like the problem was all theirs to fix.
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"When guys are competitive and a team is struggling to score runs, at times, they try to do more than they are capable of doing and go outside the strike zone," Mattingly said. "When teams come in, there are guys in our lineup they aren't going to let beat them. In those situations, you have to stay within your game and take those hits and just count on everybody else to do their thing."
Kemp -- whose average (.321) and on-base percentage (.404) remain solid but have fallen precipitously since the start of this month -- said it was a message he needed to hear.
"Sometimes, you kind of force a situation and try to do too much, and you end up struggling a little bit," he said. "When you aren't scoring runs, you still have to stay within yourself and definitely not try to force situations."
Was Kemp guilty of that?
"Who knows?" he said, after a brief pause to ponder the question. "I didn't necessarily feel that way, but I was trying to make some things happen. You just have to let those opportunities come. But we'll be fine. We're only [3½] games out, and we have a hundred million games to go."
With Kemp, a player who not that long ago didn't seem to enjoy his job all that much, you get the feeling now he wouldn't mind a bit if that exaggerated number were actually accurate. Without carrying the weight of whatever it was that bogged him down last year, he is playing the game with a passion now. And even if the last couple of weeks haven't been all that successful for him, or for the Dodgers, he has certainly been a lot more fun to watch, both on the field and in the clubhouse.
Tony Jackson covers the Dodgers for ESPNLosAngeles.com.