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BILL PLASCHKE

Dodgers' Matt Kemp shows his tremendous upside

Manny Ramirez and Andre Ethier get more attention, but Kemp is the Dodgers outfielder who is consistently getting scarier, with big weekend against the Reds.

August 31, 2009|BILL PLASCHKE

FROM CINCINNATI — He strolled coolly out of Cincinnati on Sunday night hauling a weekend stash of two homers, five runs batted in and a game-winning fly ball.

Yet none of it was as impressive as this foreign object also found in his blue Dodgers duffel bag.

A basketball.

Matt Kemp travels with a basketball?

"Sure, so we can play H-O-R-S-E," Kemp said.

So you can play what?

"In Colorado, our hotel has a gym. A bunch of us get together and shoot around; it's fun."

Who wins?

"One time Clayton Kershaw won. . . . I had no idea."

Can you dunk?

"Don't ever ask me that again."

::

Watching Matt Kemp play center field is like watching a Lakers shooting guard who somehow wandered into baggy baseball pants.

He soars. He dishes. He bangs.

Sometimes, such as in the 12th inning against the Reds here Sunday afternoon at Great American Ball Park, he turns positively Kobe.

Score tied at 2-all. Bases loaded. One out. The Reds' closer, Francisco Cordero, staring with heat.

Called strike. Swinging strike. Foul ball.

Said Manager Joe Torre: "A really tough at-bat."

Said teammate Mark Loretta: "Shadows coming in, ball moving, down two strikes, very difficult position."

Next pitch? Swish.

Kemp drove the ball to deep center field, allowing Manny Ramirez to score on the flyout and giving the Dodgers a lead that struggling Jonathan Broxton didn't lose.

The final score was 3-2, and the final question was asked by Casey Blake as he stood next to Kemp's locker.

"Matt, are you the best hitter in the game right now?" Blake said with a laugh.

In the last 10 games, he's been pretty close, hitting .385 with four homers and nine RBIs during that time.

Ramirez gets the ink, and Andre Ethier gets the adulation, but Kemp is the Dodgers outfielder who is consistently getting scarier.

While Ethier remains this team's Most Valuable Player, Kemp is its Most Consistently Improving Player, with a ceiling higher than anyone in the room, and a growing understanding of how to touch it.

"Sometimes I still surprise myself," Kemp said. "But I think I'm starting to figure it out."

With bits of Willie Davis' speed, John Shelby's defense, Ken Landreaux's swagger and Brett Butler's sense, he has a chance to be the most notable Dodgers center fielder since Duke Snider.

"One of the highest ceilings I've ever seen on a guy," Loretta said. "You look at all those tools, and you realize he just has to grow into them, and when that happens. . . . "

When that happens, Sunday's 12th inning happens, Kemp coming to the plate with the Dodgers desperate to reward their nearly untouchable -- nine strikeouts in five scoreless innings -- bullpen.

"It was Matt's best at-bat of the year," Loretta said. "He could have tried to do too much with the ball, but he hung in there and got it in the air and won the game for us."

Down 0-and-2 in the count, Kemp said that, for once, he didn't try to be a hero.

"I shortened up my swing and just tried to put the ball in play," Kemp said. "I've learned what to do in those situations."

Many thought the fly ball was even more impressive than his earlier home run because it wasn't about Kemp's jaw-dropping skill and coordination level.

"That showed his maturity level," Loretta said. "It was a huge example of how much he's grown as a hitter."

Kemp grinned like the kid he still is.

His tires have been kicked so much by folks in town, they forget he's still only 24, two years younger than Ethier.

It is Kemp who devised the flying chest bump used by him and Ethier to celebrate victories. It is Kemp who fills the clubhouse with the youthful cool that has served them so well on the field.

His fourth Dodgers season is almost like his senior college season, every day another step toward graduation into stardom.

His infamous baserunning blunders?

He deals with them.

His reputation for being tough to teach? He's really trying to listen.

Folks who criticize his routes to the ball? Judge him by what he does when he gets there.

His transcript will confirm his progress, as he is on a pace to finish with 25-plus homers, 90-plus RBIs and 30-plus stolen bases.

And, like, zero pouts.

Said Torre: "He doesn't lose his composure like he did last year. He doesn't let mistakes beat him up."

Said Kemp: "I've learned not to let anything get to me."

Not even when folks question his dunking ability, which he claims is unsurpassed in the clubhouse; both feet standing on the ground, standing under the basket, no problem.

"You know, I can't believe anybody would even think to ask me about that," he said with a chuckle.

After all, Kemp is an athlete first, a baseball player second, that rare clubhouse combination that often leads to more trouble than it is worth.

An athletic baseball player is often the most scrutinized of baseball players, challenged for his ability to transform strength into technique, style into substance.

Kemp used to bristle at that scrutiny but now welcomes it with a giant tattoo across the back of his shoulders.

Living for the moment.

"Actually, for the longest time, basketball was my favorite sport," he said Sunday, pausing, smiling.

"But not anymore."

Swish.

--

bill.plaschke@latimes.com

twitter.com/billplaschke

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