Matt Kemp delivers reminder of his impact

April, 6, 2014
Apr 6
10:29
PM PT
LOS ANGELES -- Matt Kemp never really left the Los Angeles Dodgers' clubhouse. But for the past two seasons, it was easy to forget that he was still there. If it wasn't his shoulder that was injured, he was dealing with another setback with his hamstring or ankle. And if he wasn't around the clubhouse, you figured he was off on a rehabilitation assignment somewhere, not around the corner to an actual comeback. And then after awhile you just kind of stopped asking.

That's what happens when a guy is injured. He fades from view. His voice stops carrying. You forget what he sounds like, what he plays like, and the impact he can really make when he's at his best.

[+] EnlargeMatt Kemp
Kirby Lee/USA TODAY SportsMatt Kemp's two home runs Sunday are a good sign for the Dodgers, who have envisioned what his bat would mean to already strong lineup.
That's pretty astonishing for a player as talented as Kemp, but on a team with as much firepower as the Dodgers, it can happen pretty easily.

You forget ... until Kemp reintroduces himself with a game like he had in Sunday's 6-2 win over the San Francisco Giants.

It wasn't just that Kemp clubbed two home runs off Giants ace Matt Cain, it was the way he struck the ball and the impact his presence in the lineup had on everyone else. First Kemp crushed a ball over the left-center field wall in the second inning. Then he struck an inside fastball from Cain out over the right-center field wall for a two-run shot in the fourth inning. The swing was vintage Kemp. Powerful to the opposite field, full extension on a pitch most hitters would get jammed on, then a smooth, high finish that let everyone in the park know that one felt good.

"That's when I know I'm seeing the ball good, when I drive the ball to right field like that," Kemp said. "That's my swing right there."

Starting pitcher Zack Greinke has been in L.A. for a year now, but that was the first time he'd seen Kemp put a swing on the ball like that.

"You don't see many guys able to hit that pitch like that," Greinke said. "It looked like an up-and-in fastball that not many hitters could get to. He said it wasn't that in, but it looked like a pretty good pitch to me."

The Dodgers had a feeling this version of the player many felt should have won the 2011 National League MVP award was on his way back this spring by the way he was striking the ball in batting practice.

They'd seen a similar progression in Hanley Ramirez and Adrian Gonzalez the second year after they each had surgery on their front shoulder.

"We saw it early in the spring. His BP was just different," Dodgers manager Don Mattingly said. "There was a lot of carry on the ball, kind of that high finish on the swing that we've seen from him.

"Hanley and Adrian actually came to me and said it's that next year that's tough. You feel fine, but you just don't have the strength there."

Kemp had surgery on his left shoulder before last season. He'd initially injured it running into the outfield wall in Colorado in September 2012. While he came back in 2013, he played only 73 games because of hamstring issues and then a serious ankle injury. And in the games he did play, he clearly didn't have the kind of power he'd had before the shoulder injury. His OPS was a career-low .723.

His two home runs Sunday were the first homers he'd hit at Dodger Stadium since Sept. 30, 2012.

Now that he's back, that seems like forever ago. Which is how these things go, too. People forget about you while you're injured, but if you come back and play as well as before, they forget you ever left.

As awful as the past two seasons have been on him, Kemp is fine forgetting it all as quickly as possible.

"I just feel great," he said. "I don't want to continue talking about injuries. Let's just talk about this win and go on to the next thing."

The next thing could be pretty big for the Dodgers. If Kemp can bring this kind of offense, it finally gives them the murderer's row of sluggers in the middle of their lineup that they've envisioned since trading for Gonzalez and Ramirez in the 2012 season.

"Having him in the lineup, it's a different lineup," said Ramirez, who also blasted two home runs Sunday. "We know what kind of player he is. He can put some numbers up and help this team win every day."

Greinke just shook his head at the prospect.

"I've never seen Matt being the player he is," Greinke said. "And Hanley is on a different level. If he's like he was today, you don't want to face this lineup if that's the case."

Mattingly said the Dodgers will still be cautious with Kemp as he works his way back into form. He may not play every day, no matter if he'd prefer to.

"I still got to do the same things in terms of kind of breaking him in, not just throwing him out there and letting something else happen to him," Mattingly said. "But we've never really put our full club out there on a consistent basis. Both Hanley and Matt can hit the ball out of the ballpark and steal bases."

It has been so long since Kemp was doing that for the Dodgers every day, it was easy to forget the kind of impact he can have on a game. Now that he's back -- if he really is this time -- it's hard to picture the Dodgers any other way.

"We've got a long road ahead of us," Kemp said. "But I hope the beast is back."

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TEAM LEADERS

BA LEADER
Yasiel Puig
BA HR RBI R
.317 12 54 59
OTHER LEADERS
HRA. Gonzalez 15
RBIA. Gonzalez 70
RY. Puig 59
OPSY. Puig .946
WZ. Greinke 12
ERAC. Kershaw 1.76
SOC. Kershaw 141