Dodger center fielder Matt Kemp connects for a game-winning home run against… (Luis Sinco / Los Angeles…)
First base coach Davey Lopes said he didn't know whether Matt Kemp would win the National League's most-valuable-player award because of where the Dodgers are in the standings.
But Lopes didn't hesitate to bestow another title on Kemp.
"The best player in the National League," Lopes said.
With Kemp hitting his third walk-off home run this season to lift the Dodgers to a 7-6, 11-inning victory over the Colorado Rockies at Dodger Stadium, Lopes again did what he could to gather support for the center fielder's MVP candidacy.
What Lopes refused to do was something he did the two previous times Kemp ended a game by clearing the outfield wall: extend him a congratulatory hand during his home run trot.
"He knew I was going to hit his hand hard," Kemp said.
As was the case the two previous times.
When Kemp approached first base Saturday, Lopes took a step back and waved him off.
"I wasn't taking a chance," Lopes said. "If we get to the playoffs at some point, maybe I will."
That won't happen this year, not with the Dodgers seven games under .500 and 11 games out of first place.
While Lopes said Kemp is "absolutely" his MVP choice, he guessed a player on a contending team would probably win the award.
"It's a play on words," Lopes said of how the name of the award often leads to confusion about the criteria.
But of Kemp, Lopes said, "He's the player having the best year."
The previous night, Kemp became only the second player in franchise history to hit 30 home runs and steal 30 bases in the same season. With 31 home runs and 33 stolen bases, Kemp has an outside chance to become the first Dodger in the 40-40 club.
He is batting .323 and has driven in 100 runs.
"He does everything — average, power speed, defense," Lopes said.
Lopes, who has been widely credited for helping Kemp recover from a disappointing 2010 season, downplayed his role in the five-tool player's breakout year.
"We can only do so much," Lopes said of the coaching staff. "He has to make the commitment. It was obvious to me early in spring training he had made that commitment."
Manager Don Mattingly agreed.
"In the end, Davey couldn't do that for him," Mattingly said. "Matt had to make a decision."
A decision to accept mediocrity or strive for greatness.
Kemp's leaner physique when he reported to spring training was an indication of what he decided.
"I think he desires to really be a great player," General Manager Ned Colletti said. "I think it's something he works toward, which is, for me, vital. He's worked it."
Colletti said he is particularly impressed with Kemp's improved understanding of the strike zone.
With 31 games remaining in the regular season, Kemp has walked 56 times. His previous single-season best was 53, last season.
"Something I see is his patience at the plate, especially against someone with great command who can spin the ball on the corner," Colletti said. "He used to be vulnerable against that. He's far less vulnerable now."
For Kemp, his improved play has resulted in him enjoying the game more.
"That was one of my goals, to have more fun," Kemp said. "It's a kid's game. Just relax and let it come to me."