LOS ANGELES -- The most obvious moments illustrating the value of Matt Kemp's return to the Dodgers' lineup Friday night at Dodger Stadium came with the All-Star's first-inning double into the gap in left-center and the line-drive single past short in his next trip to the plate.
Still, in terms of impacting the result in Friday's 2-1 win over San Diego, the most important moment came in the sixth with Kemp and Andre Ethier, also back after missing 11 games following an oblique injury, both on the bench. Pinch hitter Tony Gwynn Jr. dropped a bunt down the third-base line on the second pitch he saw from Padres starter Clayton Richard, reaching first for a single. Two batters later, Gwynn scored on a Mark Ellis home run, providing the Dodgers their margin of victory on a night when as a team they only scratched out six hits.
With Kemp and Ethier unavailable, the play likely doesn't happen. More than likely, Gwynn would have been in the lineup, not on the bench available for Don Mattingly at that point in the game.
Call it one of the ancillary benefits of getting a pair of All-Stars back.
"Guys are going back to roles they're familiar with. It's one of those things where you get your main guys back and now you have that extra ammunition. If you need to make a pinch-hit here or a defensive substitution there, and you can do it and you're not depleting your team," Gwynn said. "It slides everybody back to their roles, and guys can kind of get comfortable."
For Mattingly, the effects are spread around the field.
"It changes us defensively, it changes the way our order sets up, it just changes a lot of things you don't really realize," he said. "When you're trying to mix and match that 2-hole, that 3-hole, that 5-hole. These guys [Kemp, Ethier and second baseman Mark Ellis, also recently returned from injury] just kind of solidify where we're going to put people, and it makes it so much easier to put a lineup up."
For a team without much margin for error -- even with everyone healthy nobody will compare the Dodgers to the Rangers -- the stuff on the margins carries more significance.
"It's huge," Mattingly said. "We were a really good defensive team earlier in the year, and we've had to put people everywhere as we got some guys hurt. This helps us to get back to that. Everyone being where they're at. It helps us get back to the kind of club that we have a chance to be. Even before, we weren't blowing anybody out, but you're able to limit the outs the other team gets, limits their chances, and you keep the game closer and win a few more of these."
As Ellis put it, "This is who we are."
"This" being a team that pitches, plays defense and doesn't waste runs.
Friday's win certainly followed the blueprint so successful in the opening months of the first half, when the Dodgers ran up baseball's best record despite some glaring holes in the offense and what appeared to be liberal use of both smoke and mirrors. It was built on solid starting pitching (Clayton Kershaw wasn't efficient but allowed only one run in six frames) and excellent relief work, no errors,\ and the bare minimum of hitting. Save significant help at the trade deadline, the formula won't change much down the stretch and ultimately might not be enough to get the Dodgers to the postseason.
I'm certainly skeptical.
Should the Dodgers prove doubters wrong, though, it will likely be due not just to the production of Kemp and Ethier, but also the ways in which their presence helps the Blue wring every ounce of potential from a fairly limited roster.