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T.J. SIMERS

Will the real Matt Kemp please step up to the plate … or will he just strike out?

Dodgers' talented but mercurial center fielder is pals with fellow Oklahoman Blake Griffin, and faces expectations similar to those the Clippers' rookie star has met, and conquered. Kemp has failed to live up to his, though, and the Dodgers really need him to start.

February 21, 2011|T.J. Simers
  • Dodgers center fielder Matt Kemp strokes a run-scoring double against the Angels in Anaheim.
Dodgers center fielder Matt Kemp strokes a run-scoring double against… (Luis Sinco / Los Angeles…)

From Phoenix — There's a star now in Los Angeles, everyone wanting to hear more and more about the wunderkind, so Monday I talked to Matt Kemp.

About Blake Griffin.

Griffin and Kemp are from Oklahoma. Good friends. Griffin is the one who already has lived up to expectations.

Kemp played summer ball with Griffin's brother back home and says he's known Blake since he was a kid. "A little kid," Kemp says, before Griffin grew up to be "a beast and a monster. I don't know what kind of weights he's been on, but he must be eating all his vegetables.

"He's a good dude. He's got good parents. We'll see how it goes as more things change. I hope he stays the way he is."

It's been a few years now, with everyone waiting each season for Kemp to arrive big-time like Griffin. And still waiting.

"Blake's taken over the city," Kemp says, which ought to get Kobe Bryant's attention. "Blake is there, next in line. It's still Kobe's city, but Blake is definitely on the verge. . . ."

Kemp stops himself and goes on to say, "Oh, shoot, he's doing it. He's taken this city by storm. It's about time two Oklahoma boys take over L.A."

That's what you have to like about Kemp, always the dreamer. Maybe next time at the plate he won't strike out. Maybe the next time he takes off for second base he'll slide in safely. Maybe one day he will live up to expectations. Dream on.

He seems to think it will happen this season. He has his reasons. He's 215 pounds, as opposed to almost 230 a year ago. "I feel I need to move faster," he says.

He's in "a good place," he says. And happy, he almost chirps, intending to now have "fun, real fun."

It sounds like the same spring-training chatter of a year ago, sitting in the same chair in front of the same locker. "Maybe I was just lying to you," Kemp says.

Whatever the truth, everything seemed just peachy a year ago until General Manager Ned Colletti went on a radio show and criticized him for his shoddy defense. Kemp promptly went into the tank.

"No way," he says. "I've had people say way worse things. I've been criticized all my life."

Later he had a dust-up with bench coach Bob Schaefer, who thought Kemp wasn't hustling. Larry Bowa then said publicly, "I have one question I'd like to ask [Kemp]: Are you dead tired when the game is over?"

Kemp's agent, Dave Stewart, didn't take kindly to his client's ego getting bruised by critical Dodgers coaches. He suggested Kemp might do better elsewhere while e-mailing The Times to say, "Do you think for one minute I care about the team in L.A. or the fans there?"

It doesn't have quite the uplifting feel of Griffin's arrival, but then Kemp says he learned a lot about himself last season. And he's better off for it.

"I'm mentally stronger," he says. "I just know you can't play this game frustrated or mad; you've got to be loose and have fun."

Some folks wonder if his Hollywood lifestyle and relationship with Rihanna, which made him a target of the paparazzi, contributed to his baseball struggles.

"My personal life has nothing to do with my on-field performance," he says. "People shouldn't think that. There's nobody going out there to hit a baseball except me. It was my fault I did badly; nobody else's fault."

Kemp has the gift of gab, all right, and the charisma and talent to be as big in L.A. as Griffin. But so far he has shown an inability to measure up to such pressure. He went into a pout when things didn't go well last season, which he now denies.

"Let's just say I wasn't having as much fun as I should have been," he says. "But I'm not going to let anything get to me this season."

The Dodgers have no choice but to hang with Kemp as he tries to find his way. They have so few high-profile players, no one with as much raw talent.

So they did not offer contracts to Schaefer and Bowa, and hired Davey Lopes, whom Stewart considers his best friend. That leaves Kemp with his own babysitter now that he's gotten rid of Bowa and Schaefer?

"I didn't get rid of anybody," Kemp insists. "I had nothing to do with that. I'm glad [Lopes] is here, though. I saw what he did in Philly; he did a great job and he's going to help me with my baserunning.''

That suggests Kemp will get on base. A year ago he set the Dodgers' all-time strikeout record with 170. The previous mark belonged to Matt Kemp at 153.

"I never worry too much about striking out," he says. "I've always had high strikeouts. I hope I can cut back on it this year, but you never know."

A few months ago Manager Don Mattingly went on a radio show and said somewhat surprisingly he didn't see Kemp as a No. 3 or 4 hitter. He said the Dodgers needed to acquire one.

He says now he does not remember saying any such thing; it's probably just a coincidence Colletti was unable to add such a big-time player. Mattingly says Kemp will bat No. 4 for him this season.

That suggests the Dodgers are counting on Kemp in a big way, as the Clippers do Griffin. Good luck.

"Bring it on," says Kemp. "I'm back to being me. Let the fans of L.A. know that."

I will, but they're a little busy right now watching Griffin.

t.j.simers@latimes.com

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