Matt Kemp has found himself
His 6-RBI game Saturday in a win over the Reds is further evidence of his maturity
CINCINNATI -- You already know Matt Kemp, on an afternoon when the Los Angeles Dodgers desperately needed a hero and desperately needed a win, gave them the former and played a big part in giving them the latter Saturday.
You already know Kemp hit two home runs, one a grand slam, and had a career-high six RBIs, bringing the once-punchless Dodgers all the way back from a five-run deficit.
You also know the Dodgers, in a game that seemed hopeless, rallied for five runs in the eighth inning and rode that to an 11-8, 11-inning victory over the Cincinnati Reds at Great American Ball Park.
And, if you have been reading about these Dodgers at all this year, you know Kemp is a different player, a different hitter, a different guy. You know he has made a nice recovery after seeming at times to sulk his way through last season. You know he is making more of an effort to embrace the game's finer points, its subtleties, its often-complicated nuances.
And, of course, you know he already appears to be putting together a season for the ages, one that could far surpass even the breakout campaign he had two years ago.
What I wanted to know after the game was about a recent mechanical adjustment I heard Dodgers broadcaster Rick Monday talking about on the air during one of Kemp's at-bats. So when a media scrum gathered in front of his locker after the game, I asked him about it.
"Yeah, a couple of things," he said. "You have to always adjust. Pitchers are always trying to do different things, so you definitely have to adjust."
That is one thing that hasn't changed about Kemp this year -- he still isn't especially good at giving interviews, especially the kind of introspective, analytical interviews that reporters tend to seek. His responses come across as rehearsed television sound bite-type answers, heavy on cliches and light on analysis.
That's OK, of course. Certainly doesn't make him a bad guy. I mean, really, how many of us would be good at that sort of thing? And part of being a big league ballplayer is that you are constantly asked for those answers, whether you know how to give them or not.
Besides, if Kemp had given me the answer I was looking for, I might not have bothered talking to hitting coach Jeff Pentland. And by talking to Pentland, well, I still didn't get the exact details of what Monday was talking about. But I did get something more than that, something that might have illustrated better than anything I have heard this season just what it is that is so different about Kemp this year.
"It was a few things, but the good thing he has done is adjust as the season has gone on," Pentland said. "In spring training, we did some things with his hand path, and he liked it. From there, he has just kind of adjusted off that. It's more a different way of thinking [about] hitting the ball the other way. Instead of pushing the ball away, it's more of a drive. Obviously, it's his decision whether he wants to go with it or not. I just put it out there to him, and he stuck with it for two or three weeks and kind of incorporated it into his game. The rest of the adjustments were basically his.
"He tells me what he is doing and how he is doing it, and he is right on as far as I'm concerned. He has a feel for hitting, and he is able to adjust at the plate."
There. That was it. That last part. It was something we never, ever used to hear, say or write about Kemp.
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And that, perhaps better than anything else I have heard about Kemp this year, sums up exactly why this player with natural talent off the charts has transformed himself from a great athlete who plays baseball into a great ballplayer -- a ballplayer who is hitting .318 with 15 homers, 46 RBIs, 14 stolen bases and a strikeouts-to-walk ratio that is just a hair above 2:1, which would obliterate the career mark of 3.3:1 he brought into this sky-is-the-limit season.
"We have seen good years from him before, but we knew there was more there," Dodgers manager Don Mattingly said. "To his credit, he has put in the time. He worked hard on his defense in spring training, and he was out early working on his baserunning."
Kemp still suffers the occasional brain lapse that goes along with the fact he came to baseball relatively late in life. He got caught off second base on a fly ball to left Friday night, a screw-up that might have cost the Dodgers a run in a one-run loss. But there is a sense now, perhaps for the first time in his six big league seasons, that he finally has a real idea of how to use his immense ability, not only to his own benefit but to that of the Dodgers, as well.
"All I'm trying to do is be consistent," Kemp said. "But I'm trying to win ballgames at the same time. I'm just trying to help out my team."
A fairly flat comment, to be sure. But people don't pay to hear Kemp answer questions. They pay to watch him do things like what he did Saturday, on a day when the Dodgers broke out offensively as if to prove to the world, but perhaps more so to themselves, that they truly are capable of generating offense with Rafael Furcal on the disabled list.
And now, when Kemp does deliver in such a big way, it doesn't feel like the accident of nature that it sometimes did in the past. Now, you get the idea there actually was a plan behind it. And that, more than anything else, is why Kemp appears to finally be catching up with all that talent.
Tony Jackson covers the Dodgers for ESPNLosAngeles.com.
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