SAN DIEGO -- Of all the things the Dodgers' Matt Kemp has learned in recent years about playing baseball in the major leagues -- how to lay off the breaking ball down and away, how to be a better baserunner, how to play center field at such a high level as to capture a Gold Glove -- there is perhaps no more valuable lesson than the one Kemp has spent the past three weeks being force-fed.
Now Kemp knows how to weather the storm.
The strapping center fielder officially slammed the door on his hitting slump Friday night, delivering a key single in the third inning, drawing a key walk in the fifth and then giving the Dodgers a key victory, 4-3 over the first-place San Diego Padres before a sellout crowd of 42,056 at Petco Park, with a two-run homer just beyond the center-field fence and just off the end of the glove of a leaping Padres center fielder Tony Gwynn Jr. in the seventh.
The home run was Kemp's eighth of the year, but his first since April 21, the day before he went into a three-week free fall in which he would hit just .202 (17-for-84) and drive in a grand total of one run. He had begun to show signs of life in the Dodgers' previous game, on Wednesday night at Arizona, when he had two hits and finally drove in another run. But he broke out in a big way against the Padres, hitting the first home run reliever Luke Gregerson had given up at home in his two-year career with San Diego.
"I haven't hit a ball that hard in a little while, so it felt good to square one up," Kemp said. "They told me Tony Gwynn Jr. almost caught it. I'm glad it stayed out of his glove because that was a big home run for us."
Indeed, it was. After a sluggish start to the season that saw them fall as many as six games below the .500 mark as the public outcry continued to grow against owner Frank McCourt's failure to provide the necessary funds over the winter to upgrade the roster, the Dodgers (18-17) have suddenly won five consecutive games and climbed above the break-even mark for the first time.
Oh, and by striking the first blow in a stretch in which they will play five of seven games against the surprising Padres, the third-place Dodgers moved to within four games of San Diego in the National League West.
On an evening when the Dodgers had to scrap for everything they got against what statistically is baseball's best pitching staff, Kemp delivered one of four consecutive singles against former teammate Jon Garland in the third, a rally that led to only one run.
"He hit that one hard up the middle," Dodgers manager Joe Torre said. "That is a good sign, because when he is successful, that is where he has to be."
Then, with one out in the fifth, Kemp worked Garland for a five-pitch walk, putting himself in position to score when Andre Ethier followed with a double that hit the right-center-field wall on the fly, about halfway up above the 400-foot sign.
Finally, after the suddenly hot Russell Martin delivered a one-out double off the out-of-town scoreboard in right field in the seventh, Kemp teed off on Gregerson. Gwynn, who came so tantalizingly close to making a spectacular catch, pounded the padding on the fence in frustration after coming down without the ball.
Kemp credited recent work he has done with Dodgers hitting coach Don Mattingly for what he hopes is the end of his slump.
"We just tried to get him to flatten the ball a little bit more," Mattingly said. "We looked at some tape, and he was getting a little leaned over [on his back foot]. He was trying to go to right field, but almost to a fault, and we wanted him to be on top and come down a little bit more. He actually hit a couple of balls in Arizona that would have been home runs if the roof had been closed, so he is starting to swing the bat good."
Fighting his way through his recent doldrums represents yet another chapter in Kemp's on-going maturation as a big league player. From all outward appearances, the slump never got him down, which is often half the battle.
"He is a confident kid," Mattingly said. "He knows he is going to hit, enough to keep working on it. And he stayed with his routine, which is something I like to see. Some guys quit coming in when they're going bad, but he kept working, and he never really got down. We continued to work, and he started to feel it working a little bit. If they feel it, it's a lot easier for them to believe in what you're trying to get them to do to try to get out of it.
"In his case, it was a very small [adjustment]."
With the Dodgers leading by a run, two outs and a man on first in the bottom of the seventh inning, Torre summoned left-hander Hong-Chih Kuo from the bullpen to face the most dangerous man in the Padres' lineup, left-handed-hitting first baseman Adrian Gonzalez, who already had homered in the game.
After a tense nine-pitch at-bat, Kuo got Gonzalez to chase a slider and miss, ending the inning. And then, in a move that was unprecedented this season where the ever-fragile and oft-surgically repaired Kuo is concerned, Torre sent Kuo back out for the eighth inning, when he proceeded to retire Chase Headley and Oscar Salazar. After a two-out single by Jerry Hairston put the tying run on base again, Kuo basically blew away Nick Hundley, setting the table for Jonathan Broxton to pitch a perfect ninth for his fifth save.
With fellow lefty George Sherrill having struggled with his mechanics all season -- he has a 7.30 ERA -- Kuo now appears to have taken over the eighth-inning setup role. He has turned in seven consecutive scoreless appearances, spanning 6 1/3 innings, since giving up two runs in his first appearance of the season April 22 at Cincinnati, and he has struck out eight batters during that span.
Quote of the day
"If I get a blister on my foot or an ingrown toenail or something like that, I don't feel it initially because of the neuropathy. So if it goes unnoticed to the point that it gets infected, and then the infection gets into the bone, then part of the toe ends up having to be amputated. I have to check the bottom of my feet every night with a mirror just to see if there are any cuts or anything like that." -- Dodgers bullpen coach Ken Howell, who rejoined the team Friday after missing almost four weeks after having one of his toes amputated. He lost another toe from the same foot a little more than a year ago. Howell suffers from neuropathy in certain parts of his feet because of Type 2 diabetes.
The Dodgers still were down a coach Friday night because third-base coach Larry Bowa was away attending his daughter's graduation from law school. Jeff Pentland, an extra hitting instructor who assists Mattingly, replaced Bowa on the in-game staff and coached first base while regular first-base coach Mariano Duncan moved to third.
Left-hander Clayton Kershaw (2-2, 3.96) takes the mound for the first time since turning in his best performance of the season Sunday against Colorado, when he shut out the Rockies on two hits over eight innings. Right-hander Kevin Correia (4-2, 3.97) will come off the bereavement list and make his first start for the Padres since his younger brother, Trevor Brent Correia, 22, was killed in a hiking accident last Saturday in Santa Barbara.
Tony Jackson covers the Dodgers for ESPNLosAngeles.com.