Monday, September 26, 2011
Majestic season for Matt Kemp
By Tony Jackson ESPNLosAngeles.com
PHOENIX -- Hours removed from having been named the National League's Player of the Week, Matt Kemp shrugged off the honor and resumed his two-pronged pursuit of immorality Monday night. The result was a mixed bag, as he inched tantalizingly close to one of the statistical rarities he is chasing even as the other one might have drifted irretrievably out of reach.
The only result that really mattered to Kemp, though, at least if you buy his repeated claim that all he really cares about are team accomplishments, was that his Los Angeles Dodgers clinched a winning record with a 4-2 victory over the Arizona Diamondbacks -- a team that is still fighting for a favorable playoff seeding but mostly is just trying to stay healthy and fresh for the start of its postseason run this weekend -- before 29,116 at Chase Field.
To that end, it was the best of both worlds for Kemp, whose majestic, three-run homer off Daniel Hudson in the top of the first inning, a shot that landed on the concourse underneath the gigantic scoreboard in straightaway center, proved the difference in a game that was far more significant for the Dodgers than the standings would suggest, this once-woebegone team somehow coming back from 14 games below .500 in early July to climb three games above (81-78) for the first time this season.
Matt Kemp may bat leadoff the next two days to give him a better chance at reaching 40 home runs.
As for Kemp individually, he now needs two home runs in the Dodgers' final two games to become the fifth player in major league history to hit 40 homers and steal 40 bases in the same season. The conditions would seem as favorable as they can be for him to get there.
The Diamondbacks' habit lately has been to put the top down on their convertible ballpark, a condition under which the ball generally travels farther -- although that could change with temperatures in the desert expected to return to triple digits over the next two days. Meanwhile, Dodgers manager Don Mattingly said before the game he likely would move Kemp to the leadoff spot if he were to get close enough to 40/40 that it would make sense to try to maximize his plate appearances.
It makes sense now.
"That is his call right there," Kemp said. "I have batted leadoff before."
Mattingly said after the game he wasn't sure whether he would move Kemp up for the final two games or wait and see if he hits homer No. 39 on Tuesday and then possibly put him in the top spot for Wednesday's season finale.
"I was just trying to win a game tonight, so I haven't really thought about it," Mattingly said. "I will think about it."
But what of Kemp's chase for the Triple Crown? Well, it isn't much of a chase anymore.
The home run his only hit, Kemp went 1-for-4, leaving his average right where it was at .324. The two players he is chasing for the NL batting title, Milwaukee's Ryan Braun and New York's Jose Reyes, had big nights, leaving them tied for the league lead at .334 and making it virtually impossible for Kemp to catch them assuming he gets about eight more at-bats, 10 at the absolute most and that only if Mattingly doesn't wait to move him up in the order.
"It is what it is," Kemp said. "Those two guys are good hitters. It would be tough now, but I take my hat off to them. Both of them have had a heck of a season."
Kemp, Triple Crown or not, 40/40 or not, has had a pretty solid season as well, one that will earn him strong consideration for the NL Most Valuable Player award. That one is in the hands of the voters, though, and we won't know the result for several weeks. The other two things, those are much more tangible and timely, and we will know how those turn out in about 48 hours.
For his part, Kemp, who may never come this close again, says he isn't nervous.
"Of course I want it, but I don't want to force it," Kemp said. "I don't want to waste at-bats. I don't want to put any pressure on myself. I just want to keep having fun, and whatever happens, happens."
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One issue with Kemp potentially moving into the leadoff spot is that he will supplant Dee Gordon, the rookie shortstop who has basically taken that role and run with it during his latest callup to the majors, which happened on Sept. 1. This month, Gordon is hitting .359, and although he had a couple of defensive gaffes in the ninth inning as rookie closer Javy Guerra was trying to protect a two-run lead, Gordon has left little doubt in what has amounted to an audition that he is ready to take over the job on a daily basis in 2012.
Still, depending on what Mattingly decides to do with Kemp, we may already have seen the speedy Gordon in the leadoff spot for the final time this year -- and Gordon, for what it's worth, doesn't have a problem with that.
"I would be cool with that, definitely," he said. "That would get [Kemp] more at-bats."
For most of us who consider ourselves true baseball fans, for all that Kemp is accomplishing in these final days of an otherwise-lackluster season for the Dodgers, there still is a touch of disappointment. After all, there hasn't been a Triple Crown winner in the majors since the year your humble correspondent was born (that would be 1967), and there is a mild sense that we now must "settle" for Kemp's still-realistic 40/40 chase -- yeah, it has happened only four times in history, but all four times were within the past 24 years.
But just as fans of a team that, say, suffers a disappointing defeat in a World Series spend a few days licking their wounds before beginning to reflect back on what was an unforgettable season for their club, we will do the same with Kemp when this is all over. Barring something freakish (an 18-inning game, anyone?), he isn't going to win the Triple Crown, and there is a better-than-decent chance he won't go 40/40, either.
If he does neither, we may feel deflated for a day or so -- hopefully not as deflated as Montreal Expos fans felt when Vladimir Guerrero was called out on strikes in his final at-bat of 2002, leaving him at 39/40, and they subsequently started throwing stuff onto the field -- but the point is, when that fog clears, we will always remember the season Matt Kemp put up in 2011, the season we were fortunate enough to witness in real time.
Alas, there will be plenty of time for such appreciation later. For now, we want the long ball. For now, we want the thrill of the chase. For now, we want immortality for Kemp, and we want it badly.
And I'm starting to get the feeling Kemp wants it pretty badly, too.
Tony Jackson covers the Dodgers for ESPNLosAngeles.com.