Reporting from Phoenix — Something appears to have clicked inside Matt Kemp.
In the five games Kemp has played since his clear-the-air meeting with Manager Joe Torre, he is nine for 22 with three home runs, the most recent a two-run blast on Sunday that broke an eighth-inning stalemate and lifted the Dodgers to a 3-1 victory over the Arizona Diamondbacks at Chase Field.
Kemp's benching and the subsequent meeting last week remains a sensitive subject for both manager and player, who continue to be unresponsive when questioned about it.
"You're going to have to ask him," Torre said.
"That's between us," said Kemp, who was out of the lineup for three games in part because of an argument he had with bench coach Bob Schaefer.
While the Dodgers have seven games remaining until the All-Star break, they hit the actual midway point of the season on Sunday. With a 45-36 record, they remain 3½ games back of the first-place San Diego Padres in the National League West. They are half a game behind the New York Mets, the best among the contenders for the NL wild-card berth.
Kemp acknowledged that he underperformed over the Dodgers' first 81 games, saying, "It could've been better. I think I took a month off from the team."
He was talking about June, a month that included a 22-game stretch during which he hit .191.
Compared to the first 81 games last year, Kemp is hitting for a lower average (.268, down from .305), has stolen fewer bases (10, down from 19) and has struck out more (91, up from 74).
But he is up in home runs (15, compared to 10), runs (56, from 43) and runs batted in (47, from 44).
"I've got some time to make up for the bad month," Kemp said.
An especially hopeful sign for Kemp, and Torre, was that the home run he hit off of Aaron Heilman on Sunday was to the opposite field.
"His ability to hit the ball away is such an advantage," Torre said.
"That's where my strength is," Kemp said. "Using my hands, man. That's what I need to do to be successful. Not pull off the ball."
Since reinstating him to the lineup, Torre said he has noticed a change in Kemp's approach — though, of course, he wouldn't link the two developments.
"I just think he's more patient at the plate," Torre said. "It looks like he's making an effort to take a pitch."
Torre also was pleased with the Dodgers' pitching, which appears to have stabilized in the last week.
Chad Billingsley, Hong-Chih Kuo and Jonathan Broxton combined to strike out 16 batters, more than Dodgers pitchers had struck out in any game this season. For the Diamondbacks, the 16 strikeouts matched their season high. Kuo (3-1) pitched scoreless seventh and eighth innings, recording all six of his outs by strikeout, and got the win.
Billingsley started the fourth inning by giving up a double to Adam LaRoche and a run-scoring triple to Mark Reynolds. With Reynolds on third, Billingsley struck out Gerardo Parra, Dan Haren and Kelly Johnson in succession to keep the Dodgers' deficit at 1-0.
"That was huge to hold them to a run," he said.
Particularly because Haren, Arizona's ace, was pitching. The Dodgers finally got to him in the sixth inning, when Rafael Furcal doubled to left and scored on a single by Andre Ethier.
Haren held the Dodgers to one run and six hits over seven innings. He walked two.
Broxton struck out two in a perfect ninth inning to earn his 17th save.
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