- Tony Jackson, ESPNLosAngeles.com
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LOS ANGELES -- On an evening when we got our first glimpse at a player who in some circles already has been anointed as one of the great players of his generation, we also got a reminder, and a not-so-subtle one at that.
Will Bryce Harper -- who turned in a double, a sacrifice fly and a laser of a throw from left field to home plate in his major league debut for the Washington Nationals on Saturday -- be a superstar? Perhaps. Probably. Most likely. But is Matt Kemp not only already a superstar but the pre-eminent player in the game today? Once again, we got a little more evidence that the answer is a definitive yes.
Capping off a game that for him personally had been rather forgettable to that point -- a double-play grounder, a couple of strikeouts -- the Los Angeles Dodgers center fielder slammed a fastball from Nationals reliever Tom Gorzelanny far beyond the wall in straightaway center, giving the Dodgers a stirring, 4-3 10-inning victory before a sellout crowd of 54,242.
It was Kemp's seventh career walk-off hit, fifth career walk-off jack and 11th home run this season, setting a franchise record for April.
And then, as he did a quick, postgame television interview that was piped into the ballpark public address system, Kemp was asked who the woman was in the front row whom he had high-fived on his way back to the dugout after triumphantly circling the bases.
"That's my mama," Kemp shouted. "That's my girl right over there."
Yes, it was that kind of evening at the old yard, and yes, Kemp is becoming that type of ballplayer/superstar/celebrity/transcendent figure in a city that celebrates celebrities and transcendent figures like no other. Really, when he stepped to the plate to begin the bottom of the 10th, the Dodgers having already come back from the dead an inning earlier and dependable veteran Jamey Wright having mowed down the Nationals in quick order in the top half, did you expect any other result?
Kemp can tell us he did. But why should we believe him? Why should we believe he was thinking about anything else, when none of us was thinking about anything else?
"I was just trying to hit the ball hard," he said. "Sometimes when you're out there trying to hit home runs, it doesn't come out the way you want it to. I was just trying to let the ball get deep. He threw me two changeups [for strikes] the first two pitches. I fought back [to 1-2], and I wanted to hit the ball hard."
We knew he would, and he did. We knew it would leave the yard, and it did. And really, looking back at all those years when Kemp was still a work in progress, when he didn't always appear to enjoy playing the game as much as he does now, when he wasn't always the easiest guy for managers, coaches, veteran teammates and reporters to deal with, when he couldn't lay off the low-and-outside slider and couldn't quite put up the numbers we all thought he should, didn't we always know that one day we would be looking at this?
Didn't we always know that one day, Kemp would blossom not only into a superstar, but into a guy who truly loves the game and a guy who is learning to love the spotlight?
"I am very blessed in life," said Kemp, who admitted that being able to shout out to his mother on live television will go down as one of the great moments of his career.
To the purists, it is Kemp who is the real reigning National League Most Valuable Player, even if he isn't the official one. And to the realists, there is no doubt that if Kemp continues to perform at his current pace, he will be the true, unquestioned MVP in 2012. And given that this offensively challenged Dodgers team already has played 11 one-run games in its first 21, it just might be enough to carry the team to new heights.
"I remember back in 2008, when we made the playoffs in Milwaukee, Prince [Fielder] went on a tear from August through the end of the season where it seemed like he was always coming up in big spots and hitting home runs and driving in big runs," said Dodgers outfielder Tony Gwynn Jr., who played for the Brewers that year. "But I have never seen anything quite like this. This is almost an everyday thing, where Matt is getting a game-winning hit.
"He is the best player in the game right now, I don't think there is any question."
No, there really isn't. Yes, Kemp is blessed to have this life. Yes, the Dodgers are blessed to have him. And yes, the rest of us are blessed to be able to watch this on a regular basis, the best player of his generation doing what he does and loving every minute of it.
2dBrian Heyman, Special to ESPN.com