As Matt Kemp goes, so goes L.A.
LOS ANGELES -- On Sep. 16, 2011, Matt Kemp went 2-for-4 with an RBI in the Los Angeles Dodgers' 7-2 win over the Pittsburgh Pirates. The win was unremarkable. The Dodgers improved to 74-76 on the season; the Pirates fell to 68-83. Matt Kemp had another nice game in a bounce-back season after a poor year in 2010.
It's what happened next that stands out. That game was the beginning of a 12-game hitting streak that would vault Kemp not only into the Most Valuable Player discussion in the National League, but into an elite group of the best players in baseball. He flirted with a Triple Crown until the last game of the season. He electrified Dodger Stadium. For one two-week stretch, fans forgot about the indignities to which former owner Frank McCourt had subjected the franchise.
All told, Kemp hit .431 (22-for-51) with six home runs, 16 RBIs, six doubles and 16 runs in those 12 games. The Dodgers went 9-3 to improbably finish the year a winning record (82-79).
Sept. 16, 2012 was not as good of a day for Matt Kemp or the Dodgers. With two outs in the bottom of the 10th in a game that may very well have determined the final NL wild-card team, the St. Louis Cardinals walked Andre Ethier intentionally to load the bases and bring up Kemp with two outs.
A year ago this would have been unthinkable. Heck, a month ago this would've been baseball heresy. But on this day, with the way Kemp had been swinging the bat, it proved to be a genius move. Kemp flied out to center field to end the inning. The Cardinals scored three runs in the top of the 11th and ended up winning 5-2 to maintain a one-game lead on the final wild-card berth.
For the Dodgers, it was a punch to the gut. A sobering example that the rest of the baseball world knows what has been apparent to them since Kemp ran into the outfield wall in Colorado on Aug. 27:
Matt Kemp isn't Matt Kemp right now.
The statistics provide ugly confirmation: Until his game-winning home run in the second game of Wednesday's double-header against the Washington Nationals, Kemp hadn't had an extra base hit since August 25. He's hitting .158 in September. He went just 1-for-13 with six strikeouts over the final three games of the Cardinals series.
But at the plate he just looks off.
"I'm grinding, I'm trying to get things done," Kemp said after Saturday night's win. "But right now I'm just swinging at bad pitches and not letting the game come to me. I've just got to slow down a little bit.
"Guys, I know how to hit. I promise you, I know how to hit."
Of course he does. Just a year ago he was setting the baseball world afire at the plate. The question is whether this is just a bad slump at the worst possible time of year, or whether the accumulation of injuries Kemp has endured this year is taking its toll.
"I think he's relatively healthy," Dodgers manager Don Mattingly said. "I can't say he's 100 percent. I don't think he's going to be 100 percent until we get into the offseason and he gets a chance to really rest and recover and strengthen and do all the things you can do with a little bit of time. But I think relatively, it feels like he can be productive."
For the Dodgers, it is essentially the only question that matters over the final weeks of the season.
Can Matt Kemp be Matt Kemp again? Because if not, the Dodgers probably aren't going very much farther.
Kemp is still the engine that drives this team. If he's sputtering, nothing runs right. Acquiring Adrian Gonzalez, Hanley Ramirez and Shane Victorino was supposed to mitigate some of this. Take some pressure off Kemp's shoulders. But so far, none of those players has been able to do so with any consistency.
This team is as it has been the last few years: going in whatever direction Matt Kemp is.
There isn't a coach, player or staffer with the Dodgers who thinks Kemp is 100 percent right now. But to a man, they say that's not the issue.
"Oh, he's definitely hurting right now," one Dodgers source said. "But he can still play and be productive for us."
Kemp refuses to let his injuries become an excuse. "I'm good," he said defiantly. "I feel great."
He sounds a lot like Kobe Bryant when he's dealing with an injury: strong-willed, defiant, stubborn. It's what a leader does.
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So if it's not directly related to his injuries (hamstring, shoulder, neck) what is it?
"Timing," hitting coach Dave Hansen said bluntly. "For him, it's all timing."
And really it's not all that surprising that a guy who has come on and off the disabled list twice already this season, and had to sit out another four games after running into the wall in Colorado, would have some issues with his timing.
"He has a different bat angle than most," Hansen said. "A little bit different setup that's unique to him. When it's on time, it's devastating to all fields.
"Those are his gifts. When his timing and his rhythm are right, he's fine. He's swung it a million times. So what's the difference-maker? It's usually timing. Right now, he's going to get the game instead of letting the game get to him. And it's not only him. There's other guys who are forcing some stuff, too."
Hanley Ramirez, for example, is "guessing at some pitches" right now, Hansen said.
"He has a lot of big moving parts," Hansen said. "It's a technical swing, but he's got a lot of moving parts that have to be in sync. He also has gifts with his hand-eye coordination so he can make up some things.
"But when our timing's off, we're trying to force the issue. We've got to get back to the basic part of it, which is hunting a pitch in a location and having some discipline to lay off the other stuff. Make it real simple."
For the Dodgers it really is simple: They'll go as far as Matt Kemp goes.
Last year at this time he took them a long way. There's still three weeks left in this year.