On Monday, Kemp made his first big league plate appearance since July 21 but struck out to end the game. (Ross D. Franklin/AP)
Prior to Monday night's game, the Dodgers activated Matt Kemp, who had not played a major league game since July 21 and who has been limited to just 63 games this year thanks to three trips to the disabled list. It's been a disquieting season for the 28-year-old centerfielder, who hasn't approached his MVP-caliber form since suffering a left shoulder injury late last August. Once Los Angeles' best and highest-paid position player, he's had little to do with the first-place team's success this year, and the question for the moment as he works his way back from both an ankle sprain and a hamstring strain is how much he can help the club in October.
Prior to the game against the Diamondbacks, Kemp told reporters , "I know I can make this team better than what they already are. I don't feel like I need to audition, I just need to go out there and play." But until he can demonstrate his ability to run without hindrance, he's not much help. For the moment, manager Don Mattingly is limiting him to pinch-hitting. From True Blue LA's Eric Stephen, quoting Mattingly's pre-game press conference:
"His swing looked really good. His running was not as good as we'd like. The straight running was really good, but as far as making a turn at second base he was really tentative," Mattingly said. "This is not really our call, it's more of a medical decision of what he can or can't do. We'll just have to see what he looks like in the outfield there a little bit, and see what we can live with."
Kemp wound up pinch-hitting with two outs in the ninth inning after Mattingly had voluntarily hobbled the Dodgers by ordering hot hand Juan Uribe to sacrifice with runners on first and second and nobody out; a lousy bunt forced the runner at third. One more out later, a rusty-looking Kemp struck out on five pitches to end the game, sending the Dodgers to a 2-1 defeat, their fourth loss in a row and ninth in their past 12 games.
The irony is that L.A.'s outfield is particularly depleted at the moment due to minor injuries, a major factor in the team's recent slump. On Friday night, Andre Ethier, who has made more starts in centerfield this year than Kemp has (70 to 59), suffered an ankle sprain in the eight inning and was pulled for a pinch-runner; he was in a walking boot the next day and hasn't played since. Carl Crawford departed in the third inning of Saturday's game and sat on Sunday and Monday due to back soreness stemming from the aggravation of a nagging injury. Yasiel Puig, who started in centerfield in place of Ethier on Saturday, left after six innings and then sat on Sunday due to soreness in his left hip; he pinch-hit with two outs in the ninth inning that day and grounded out with the bases loaded to end the game.
Thus, Sunday's lineup featured Jerry Hairston in leftfield, Skip Schumaker in center and Nick Buss -- a 26-year-old organizational player making his first major league start after spending the season at Triple-A Albuquerque -- in right. Puig was back on Monday, with Buss shifting over to left. The team's only win in the past six games not coincidentally came in the lone start of their most frequently used outfield of Crawford, Ethier and Puig. During that span, the Dodgers have scored just 13 runs, though the absence of Hanley Ramirez for four games due to a back issue of his own hasn't helped.
Since Puig burst onto the scene in early June, much speculation has centered around how Mattingly would juggle the quartet of outfielders in whom the Dodgers are heavily invested through at least 2017. Alas, Mattingly has faced that problem for exactly two days, July 5 and July 21. In the former, Crawford had just come off the disabled list, but by the third inning, Kemp departed due to a bout of inflammation in his surgically repaired shoulder. Activated and starting in the latter game, Kemp, went 3-for-4, falling a triple short of the cycle but spraining his ankle running the bases during ninth-inning garbage time. So much for that.
Puig (.336/.406/.547) has been by far the most productive of the four, and a key part of the turnaround that saw the Dodgers climb out from under a 30-42 record by reeling off 42 wins in 50 games. Crawford (.280/.330/.395) jumped out to a hot start in April but has hit .272/.312/.359 with one homer and nine steals since the beginning of May. Ethier (.272/.361/.424) hit just .252/331/.372 through June, but has perked up to .298/.395/.488 since, that while demonstrating surprising adequacy in centerfield. Kemp has hit only .262/.317/.380 with five homers overall, but was showing signs of finding his stroke — .324/.390/.622 with three homers in 41 plate appearances — before the ankle sprain. Any notion that he could carry that over a month and a half later was quashed by his 0-for-18 rehab stint with High-A Rancho Cucamonga, after which the Dodgers shut him down due to the hamstring complaint.
At 86-64, the Dodgers still own a 9 1/2 game lead over the Diamondbacks, and their magic number to clinch the NL West flag is down to four; two wins over Arizona in their final three games of this series would get the champagne flowing. The more important matter is ensuring that their regulars are healthy enough for the postseason. If Kemp can find his legs and demonstrate that he deserves to be among them, the Dodgers will be better off no matter how the playing time shakes out, but he appears to have a ways to go to before Mattingly once again confronts that situation.