With two stints on the disabled list and a slugging percentage well below .400, it's been a trying season for Matt Kemp. Fresh off a 15-day stay on the disabled list, the Dodgers' 28-year-old centerfielder went 3-for-4 with a walk Sunday, falling a triple short of the cycle and helping the Dodgers to a three-game sweep of the Nationals and a share of first place in the NL West. Alas, Kemp sprained his left ankle while trying to score a meaningless ninth-inning run and limped off the field, his prognosis once again in doubt.
The MVP-caliber player who hit 39 homers and stole 40 bases in 2011 has rarely shown top form since undergoing offseason surgery to repair the labrum of his left (non-throwing) shoulder. Unsurprisingly, he got off to a slow start in 2013, hitting just .251/.305/.335 with two homers through May 29, when he strained his right hamstring. He spent 26 days on the DL, and was just starting to heat up — homering on back-to-back days on July 3-4 — when he aggravated the acromioclavicular joint of his left shoulder in his first plate appearance on July 5. After receiving a cortisone shot, he was placed on the DL in a retroactive move on July 8.
Upon returning Sunday, he appeared ready to pick up where he left off. In his first plate appearance, Kemp led off the second inning of a scoreless game against the Nationals' Jordan Zimmermann. Five pitches in, he crushed a hanging slider for a solo home run to rightfield:
That homer kick-started a seven-run rally that featured six hits and two walks, with a three-run homer by Hanley Ramirez the biggest blow. As the Dodgers batted around, Kemp capped the rally by driving in Andre Ethier with a two-out double.
The outburst chased Zimmermann after just two innings, the shortest start of his major-league career. It's unclear whether the neck stiffness that scratched the 27-year-old righty from an All-Star Game appearance was a factor. Zimmermann has reportedly been pitching through the injury — said to be a slightly bulging disc — for some unspecified amount of time, but his effectiveness has waned. Since putting up a 2.28 ERA through the end of June, he's been rocked for a 7.32 mark in four starts this month, only one of them quality starts. Meanwhile, his opposite number, Clayton Kershaw, cruised Sunday. In seven innings, he yielded just two hits, both of them solo homers by Jayson Werth.
In the fourth inning, Kemp added an RBI single off Ross Ohlendorf, running the score to 9-1. He had two chances to complete the cycle, but lined out to left in the sixth inning, and walked in the ninth. Given the 9-2 margin, the radio announcer Steve Lyons wondered aloud if manager Don Mattingly would pull Kemp for a pinch-runner; in the previous three innings, he had replaced Ramirez, Ethier and Adrian Gonzalez. Kemp remained in the game, however, advancing to second on Mark Ellis' single, and taking third when Brandon League walked (!). He tried to score when Carl Crawford rolled a grounder to first base, but wasn't running anywhere near full speed, and then decided to try scoring standing up instead of sliding. While crossing the plate, his left foot caught beneath the outstretched left leg of catcher Kurt Suzuki. From Chad Moriyama of MLBGIFS.com:
Kemp limped off the field and was replaced by Yasiel Puig for the bottom of the ninth inning. After the game, the Dodgers' official Twitter feed summarized Mattingly's postgame comments on his condition:
Even so, "Dodger Talk" co-host David Vassegh of Fox Sports LA reported that Kemp appeared fairly uncomfortable:
At least for the moment, the injury will again forestall the need for Mattingly to worry about their four-outfielder logjam. When Crawford was activated on July 5, it was the was the first game for which Mattingly had him, Ethier, Kemp and Puig all available, but that lasted only until Kemp departed in the third inning due to his injured shoulder. Though he spent a few days lingering on the roster before being placed on the DL, Sunday's game was the first time since then that all four outfielders were healthy enough to play; Puig, who was just 1-for-14 over his previous four games and without an extra-base hit over his previous 10, was the one who sat until being called upon to replace Kemp in the ninth.
For all of the injuries, the Dodgers have been surging. They're a major-league best 27-15 since June 3, the day that Puig made his major-league debut; the next day, Ramirez returned to the lineup following a four-week absence due to a hamstring strain. Since then, Puig has hit .369/.400/.581 with eight homers, while Ramirez has hit .388/.441/.705 with nine homers. Ramirez collected the go-ahead hits in the previous two games against the Nationals, with a third-inning two-run homer off Stephen Strasburg on Friday night, and a 10th-inning RBI double off Craig Stammen on Saturday night. The sweep lifted the Dodgers' record to 50-47. Depending upon the outcome of Sunday's Diamondbacks-Giants game, they'll either remain half a game back in the NL West or half a game up, in first place for the first time since Apr. 2.