Three Strikes: Huge NLDS home run latest sign of Matt Kemp's revival
LOS ANGELES -- The biggest impact hitter of the 2014 postseason was hitting .205 in early May, was so bad in centerfield he lost his job there and, after tearing up his ankle last year on a play caused by his lack of hustle, had people thinking he might never be the same explosive player again. Well, get ready for your Hollywood ending: Dodgers rightfielder Matt Kemp is officially back, his eighth-inning, game-breaking, stadium-rattling, series-saving home run in NLDS Game 2 for the Los Angeles Dodgers standing as his latest and boldest statement that he has returned to an elite level.
“That’s definitely tops as one of the big ones that I’ve hit,” he said.
Kemp led the league in slugging in the second half (.606), was the league’s player of the month in September and has begun the NLDS with five hits in nine at-bats, including the majestic game-breaker off Cardinals reliever Pat Neshek in Game 2. What happened? It began with Kemp getting healthy. His ankle, which he injured in a home plate slide after first jogging from third on a grounder to first base, simply needed more time to heal. It also helped that he was moved to rightfield, a position he mostly played in the minors, after having previously attempted to play leftfield, where he seemed awkward, after losing his spot in center.
But the turning point came midway through the season when Kemp finally gave in and turned himself over to hitting coaches Mark McGwire and John Valentin. The coaches for weeks had wanted Kemp to return to a neutral, upright stance, in which his feet were squared with home plate. Kemp, to cheat on pitches, had developed a closed, squat stance and a habit of diving into pitches, an approach that sapped him of power. By July 27, Kemp was hitting .277 and had only eight home runs, including just three in his previous 63 games.
“They had been trying to get him to get squared with his feet and to get taller,” Dodgers manager Don Mattingly said. “It’s like anything else a player hears: until he really hits bottom, he’s probably going to fight it. He was getting his hits, but by being so closed off he wasn’t able to drive the ball. Once he squared up, you could see the ball jump off his bat again.”
After June 27, Kemp hit .304 with 17 home runs in 78 games. He looks much closer to the MVP runner-up he was in 2011. The Cardinals have their hands full with Kemp right now. He has gotten hits off changeups, curveballs and fastballs. He may not be all the way back – he’s not the runner or base stealer he used to be – but he has rediscovered the thunder in his bat.
2. St. Louis still hopeful about Oscar
Oscar Taveras lost his rightfield job to Randal Grichuk. Taveras, the Cardinals' uber-prospect, was given an open path to playing time when St. Louis traded Allen Craig to Boston. Taveras fumbled the job because he simply wasn’t ready for it. For all the hype about him from his minor league days, he showed a long, slow lefthanded swing, poor defensive and baserunning skills and less than optimum playing shape. He hit .239/.278/.312 in 80 games for the Cardinals. And so it was Grichuk, a righthanded hitter, who started NLDS Game 2 even though the Dodgers started righthander Zack Greinke.
Cardinals manager Mike Matheny indicated it wasn’t the home run Grichuk hit off Clayton Kershaw in Game 1 that convinced him to play Grichuk in Game 2. He was playing Grichuk again anyway because Grichuk is such a better defensive player and baserunner than Taveras and because Grichuk has ridiculous raw power. “And that’s without getting his man-muscles yet,” Matheny said.
Does all this mean that Taveras, once hyped as the best hitting prospect in the minors, is a bust? Not even close. It just means that Taveras, 22, needs more time. As Matheny said before Game 2, “I believe he still can impact games coming off the bench” – and that was before Taveras delivered a rally-starting single in the eighth inning.
“He’s working,” Matheny said. “Everything’s really come fairly easy for him. He’s never really been pushed before. It’s been a little bit of a culture shock for him. We need to get him stronger and in shape – in different shape than he is now – and then see what we have.”
3. Williams learns October lesson
Nationals manager Matt Williams himself revealed the fatal flaw in his decision to remove Jordan Zimmermann in NLDS Game 2 when he was one out away from tying the series against the Giants at one game apiece.
“Why did we decide to take him out?” said Williams, repeating a question as if to buy himself more time. “Because if he got in trouble in the ninth or got a baserunner, we were going to bring our closer in.”
That’s right: Williams had predetermined that one baserunner would be enough to remove his best pitcher from the game.
“That is what we have done all year,” he said.
Three problems: First, his “closer,” Drew Storen, hasn’t been the closer “all year.” He took the job from a sputtering Rafael Soriano in the past two months. Second, Williams didn’t bother to trust his eyes, to make a determination that Zimmerman, who had thrown only 100 pitches, was coming off a no-hitter and had mowed down 20 in a row before the two-out ninth-inning walk, was his best option. Three, you cannot manage in the urgency of the postseason using “that’s the way we’ve done it all year” as a cop-out. The very point of the postseason is that it’s not the regular season.
It’s been a fascinating postseason for managers. It started with Kansas City's Ned Yost and his loony choice of using starting pitcher Yordano Ventura in relief during a Wild-Card Game jam and includes Don Mattingly getting weirdly criticized for sticking with Clayton Kershaw and then pulling a gassed Greinke and just about any choice Detroit's Brad Ausmus makes when he has to dip into his bullpen. But right now the pre-determined decision by Williams to pull his best pitcher looks like the one that will have the longest residence in infamy.