Kemp has encouraging, if fruitless, return

LOS ANGELES -- Matt Kemp's first evening off the disabled list didn't exactly end the way he had hoped. It ended with him sprinting home from third, but that was only a symbolic gesture, and Kemp was crossing the plate with what would have been the tying run just as James Loney was being thrown out at first for the final out of the Los Angeles Dodgers' 2-1 loss to the Milwaukee Brewers before 51,137 on Tuesday night at Dodger Stadium.

For Kemp, the game had been a mixed bag. He had struck out in his first at-bat, swinging through a way-too-high fastball from an unfamiliar Brewers rookie named Michael Fiers. He had flied to deep right in the fourth, the ball appearing on its way to the pavilion until it died and landed in the glove of Brewers right fielder Corey Hart on the warning track.

Kemp tapped out weakly in the sixth.

Finally, though, as he stepped to the plate to lead off the ninth against Brewers closer John Axford, Kemp treated us all to something special -- and something he would have been wholly incapable of as recently as a couple of years ago. Not the leadoff double that hinted at a Dodgers rally. Kemp has always had the ability to do that. It was more the at-bat itself, an exhaustive, nine-pitch marathon against Axford in which Kemp fouled off three pitches with two strikes before finally plugging the gap.

Kemp has been sidelined for 15 days with a strained left hamstring. It wasn't that long ago -- two years ago, in fact -- that teammate Andre Ethier was off to the kind of start Kemp got off to this year, suffered an untimely broken pinkie in mid-May, spent two weeks on the DL (almost the same two weeks of the season that Kemp just spent there), arguably came back too quickly and never was quite the same the rest of the year.

Can the same thing happen with Kemp? Well, sure it can. But will it? Not likely. The fact Kemp went 5-for-7 with a couple of homers in his two-game rehab at Triple-A Albuquerque would seem to indicate a seamless transition, especially if you buy into the notion that Triple-A pitching isn't that far removed from big league caliber.

And if those first three, fruitless at-bats, all against the baffling Fiers, made anyone uneasy, well, they apparently shouldn't have.

"I thought Matt was good," Dodgers manager Don Mattingly said. "The ball he hit to right field was hit really well. It is going to take him a little bit to get totally back, but it won't take him long. I thought his at-bats were good. (Axford) is tough, and Matt hung right there with him."

If Kemp suffered any ill effects from the time he missed, he wasn't saying so.

"I felt good," he said. "I didn't feel uncomfortable. I had some pretty good at-bats. I was completely happy with the way it went, other than us losing."

It was only a first step, both for Kemp and the Dodgers. There are other players coming right behind him, with Juan Rivera possibly coming off the DL by the weekend and Juan Uribe about to start taking batting practice. What has been a patchwork lineup is close to being a complete one, at a time when the Dodgers (32-17) already have a sizable lead in the National League West, even though it is two games less sizable than it was 48 hours ago.

Still, it was a comforting thing to see Kemp back on the field and healthy. It was an even more comforting thing to see him have an outstanding at-bat against one of the toughest closers in the league and eventually win the battle.

The only thing left for the Dodgers to do now is to start reaping the benefits of having a healthy Kemp -- something they weren't able to do on Tuesday night.