On Tuesday night, Matt Kemp returned to the Dodgers lineup following a 15-day stint on the disabled list due to a left hamstring strain. Like the rest of his teammates, he couldn't do much against the Brewers' Michael Fiers, a soft-tossing 27-year-old rookie making his first major league start. In the first inning, with the Dodgers already down 2-0 thanks to a two-run homer by his MVP nemesis Ryan Braun, Kemp struck out swinging at a high 90-mph fastball (that velocity is according to MLB Gameday; the stadium scoreboard, as cited by Vin Scully, read 92). In the fourth, he drove a first-pitch fastball to the warning track in rightfield, where Corey Hart hauled it in. In the sixth, following a one-out double by Ivan DeJesus Jr., he topped an 86-mph fastball only a few feet onto the grass in front of the catcher, failing to advance the runner; Andre Ethier followed with an RBI double to cut the lead to 2-1.
By the time Kemp led off the bottom of the ninth with the score still 2-1, Fiers had departed in favor of heat-throwing closer John Axford. Suddenly, the superstar didn't look so rusty, working the count to 3-2 over the course of eight pitches — two more than he'd seen from Fiers in three trips — before mashing a 98-mph fastball into the left-centerfield gap for a double. Alas, after Ethier was hit by a pitch, Jerry Hairston Jr. fell behind in the count by fouling off a pair of awkward bunt attempts — Dodger manager Don Mattingly is all too fond of giving away outs in that manner — before grounding into a double play, and then James Loney grounded out as well, sending the Dodgers down to defeat.
Even with the loss, the 32-17 Dodgers have the majors' best record, and a 5-1/2-game lead over the Giants in the NL West. They went 9-5 during Kemp's absence, gaining half a game on San Francisco despite a lineup that looked like a split squad (Justin Sellers? Scott Van Slyke? Elian Herrera? ). Tony Gwynn Jr. — the Dodgers also lead the majors in pedigrees — started in Kemp's place 12 times in 14 games and hit a slappy .304/.316/.357, while Ethier (.360/.404/.560), A.J. Ellis (.310/.383/.500), waiver wire refugee Bobby Abreu (.361/.500/.444) and even Loney (.318/.388/.455) did the heavy lifting.
As a team, the Dodgers averaged 4.57 runs per game while Kemp was out on .292/.351/.420 hitting, compared to 4.44 runs per game on .262/.340/407 hitting before he went down. Basically, a handful of extra singles fell in; their BABIP spiked from .302 with Kemp to .360 without him. Meanwhile, their pitching staff limited opponents to 3.57 runs per game in his absence, not as good as their 3.44 per game prior, but then they're second in the league in run prevention anyway. What remains to be seen is how quickly Kemp can heat up again, and if he'll regain ground in the NL MVP race. Prior to going on the DL, he was in the midst of a 4-for-23 slide, with most of that happening after the hamstring problem first developed. That took the shine off what had been a .404/.491/.851 line; he's now hitting "only" .355/.441/.719, numbers which would rank 10th, sixth, and first in the NL if he had enough plate appearances to qualify. His True Average — a Baseball Prospectus stat that expresses runs per plate appearance on a batting average scale, with .300 being excellent, .260 being average, and .230 being replacement level — is .397, which again would be enough to lead the league if qualified; his .355 mark led the league last year. As with last year, Kemp also led the league in Wins Above Replacement Player at the time he went on the DL, but his 2.3 WARP now ranks fifth behind David Wright (2.9), Joey Votto (2.5), Melky Cabrera (2.4), and last night's villain, Braun (2.4).