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Friday, July 15, 2011
Updated: July 16, 2:09 PM ET
Matt Kemp continues his tear

By Tony Jackson
ESPNLosAngeles.com

PHOENIX -- Los Angeles Dodgers manager Don Mattingly wasn't being critical when he said before Friday night's game that he wasn't terribly surprised that his star center fielder, Matt Kemp, hadn't performed especially well in Monday night's All-Star Home Run Derby.

Kemp essentially finished last, getting knocked out after a first round in which he hit only two home runs, the fewest of any of the eight participants.

"I really didn't think he would do that well, very honestly," said Mattingly, who was Kemp's hitting coach for two-plus seasons before taking over as manager this year, and who knows Kemp's swing as well as anybody. "He is kind of a right-field, right-center field home-run guy. Matt doesn't really pull that many of his home runs, so that was kind of a tough contest for him to take part in. Those other guys were all dead-pull hitters."

Matt Kemp
Matt Kemp had four RBIs on Friday and threw a runner out at the plate.

There is no disputing that Kemp's improved ability to go the opposite way is largely responsible for the spectacular -- and possibly most-valuable -- season he is having. But in the sixth inning of what became a 6-4 Dodgers victory over the Arizona Diamondbacks in front of 24,966 at Chase Field, Kemp reminded his boss that he isn't a one-dimensional menace, yanking a pitch from Arizona lefty Joe Saunders almost directly down the left-field line and into the front row beyond, and about 15 feet above, the Diamondbacks' bullpen.

"I don't do that too often," Kemp said. "It is something we have been working on, if I get an inside pitch, get a good swing on it and try to drive it out of the ballpark. But my power is more to right-center. If I stay with that, I'll be pretty good, I think."

That thunderous blast was part of a larger message sent by Kemp, that although he spent the previous four days marveling to reporters about the scene at his first All-Star media day, swinging from his heels in the Derby, drawing a walk and getting a hit and scoring the decisive run in his first All-Star Game, attending the ESPYs, logging some quality time with his family and taking multiple airplane flights, he was more than prepared to turn it all back on again for the start of the second half.

"It was good to see," Mattingly said. "I have been to a few All-Star Games, and you really come out of those games with a lot of energy after getting around all those guys who are considered tops in the game. You would think you'd be tired … but your first one is a jolt for you, and you really come out of it with a lot of confidence and energy."

Besides the homer, Kemp's 23rd of the season, he also singled in two more runs in the seventh to give the Dodgers a 6-0 lead. But the most impressive moment for Kemp might have come way back in the first inning, when fellow All-Star Clayton Kershaw, who would deliver another of his increasingly frequent command performances, appeared to be in early trouble.

With speedy Diamondbacks left fielder Willie Bloomquist on third and one out, yet another All-Star, Justin Upton, launched Kershaw's first pitch about 320 feet into straightaway center field, a shot that was certain to give the Diamondbacks a 1-0 lead.

Certain to everyone but Kemp, that is.

Kemp hauled it in and launched a missile. It arrived at the plate on one hop, catcher Dioner Navarro gloving it right behind a sliding Bloomquist and whip-tagging him squarely on the back just before Bloomquist's foot made contact with the plate.

A visibly excited Kemp responded with a hop-step in center field before starting his jog back to the dugout. It was as if a guy who has publicly stated he has a goal of hitting 40 homers and stealing 40 bases, a guy who already has a Gold Glove on his résumé, a guy who looks for all the world as if he will at least challenge for the National League Most Valuable Player award, had shown the world that, oh yeah, he also has this other weapon.

"I saw the umpire call him out, and I was pretty pumped up about it," Kemp said.

The Dodgers (42-51) were pretty pumped, as well, their season-best winning streak having reached five games and their second half having gotten off to a solid start. But for a team whose playoff hopes remain faint, the burgeoning storyline of Kemp and the epic season he is putting together seems to become increasingly compelling with each game, each date on the calendar, each week.

Kemp's first All-Star experience clearly left him wowed and awestruck. Now it's time for him to get back to the business of leaving us that way.

Tony Jackson covers the Dodgers for ESPNLosAngeles.com.